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Opinion: Jony Ive leaving won’t doom Apple, and may even be a positive

Apple’s announcement yesterday about Jony Ive leaving the company was something of a bombshell even though we’d seen it coming for awhile. Ive’s iconic designs are fundamental to Apple’s success, so to see the two parting ways came as a shock to many.

The NASDAQ hasn’t yet opened, but pre-market trading suggests that AAPL investors are not overly concerned …

At the time of writing, the stock is less than 1% down in the pre-market. We’ll of course have to wait to see what happens later in the day, but any panic reaction would likely be showing up by now.

I share that lack of concern, for several reasons. First, of course, we’ve been here before.

It’s 2015 all over again

Ive had already stepped back from direct responsibility for hardware and software design back in 2015.

The official line at the time was that it was a promotion, but it was clear to everyone that this was Ive taking a less hands-on role.

Apple’s Jony Ive has served as the company’s Senior Vice President of Design for several years now, but Apple has announced today that the executive is being named Chief Design Officer (a newly-created position). Additionally, Ive and will be handing the managerial reins of both the industrial and software design units at Apple over to two new leaders on July 1st.

Richard Howarth will become VP of Industrial Design and focus on hardware. Howarth has been part of the iPhone team since the very first generation of the device was in development.

Alan Dye will now be VP of User Interface Design, which covers both desktop and mobile devices. He was a key player in iOS 7’s major redesign as well as the work on the new Watch OS interface. Both of these executives were mentioned as key Apple employees during the New Yorker and WIRED Apple Watch profiles earlier this year.

Ive’s new role will still leave him in charge of the company’s hardware and software design teams overall, but allowing others to handle the day-to-day affairs of each design group will free him up for other tasks. Among those other tasks, Ive says, is a focus on the design of Apple’s retail stores and new campus.

My suspicion is that Ive wanted to leave then, but Apple was able to hold onto him by letting him go play with his new toy – Apple Park – while handing off his other responsibilities.

Taking a further step back, then, is probably a bigger change on paper than in reality. And, indeed, that idea is supported by Bloomberg report today.

After the Watch launched in 2015, Ive began to shed responsibilities. Day-to-day oversight of Apple’s design team was reduced to coming to headquarters as little as twice a week, according to people familiar with the matter […]

Around that time, Ive told the New Yorker he’d become “deeply, deeply tired.” He said the year leading up to the Watch debut was “the most difficult” since he joined Apple […]

Ive also traveled frequently to London, near where he was raised. He occasionally missed out on Apple product launch events, an unthinkable absence several years ago.

“This has been a long time in the making,” according to one of the people.

Yesterday’s official line was very similar

The official line yesterday aimed to convey a very similar message. No need to worry about Jony Ive leaving Apple, he will still be working for us in a freelance capacity.

Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, will depart the company as an employee later this year to form an independent design company which will count Apple among its primary clients. While he pursues personal projects, Ive in his new company will continue to work closely and on a range of projects with Apple […]

Said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO: “Apple will continue to benefit from Jony’s talents by working directly with him on exclusive projects, and through the ongoing work of the brilliant and passionate design team he has built. After so many years working closely together, I’m happy that our relationship continues to evolve and I look forward to working with Jony long into the future.”

The impression given is that he’ll be there as much and as often as Apple needs him. Whether or not that’s the reality is questionable, but I’m sure if he was ever needed on a brief consultation, he’d make himself available.

A fresh approach is not necessarily a bad thing

Many have been of the view that putting Ive in charge of iOS as well as hardware design wasn’t necessarily a great decision. Having the two sides once again separated out, though working closely together, is probably a better setup.

And even on the hardware side, the MacBook Pro keyboard debacle has, for many, soured their view of Ive’s designs. As John Gruber put it:

This may be good news. Ive is, to state the obvious, preternaturally talented. But in the post-Jobs era, with all of Apple design, hardware and software, under his control, we’ve seen the software design decline and the hardware go wonky. I don’t know the inside story, but it certainly seems like a good bet that MacBook keyboard fiasco we’re still in the midst of is the direct result of Jony Ive’s obsession with device thinness and minimalism. Today’s MacBooks are worse computers but more beautiful devices than the ones they replaced. Is that directly attributable to Jony Ive? With these keyboards in particular, I believe the answer is yes.

Designed by LoveFrom in London?

I’m very much of the view that Jony Ive leaving Apple really happened back in 2015. I think the idea of the designer freelancing for Apple is PR spin, just as his promotion was the first time around.

I don’t think Apple will need worry about how to rephrase that famous Designed by Apple in California slogan on its product boxes. Zac’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Designed for Apple in California won’t, I think, be required.

Even before 2015, Ive was a hugely important design leader, and the public face of Apple’s industrial design team, but it always was a team effort and there will be many talented people in that team – otherwise Ive wouldn’t have recruited or retained them. His influence and thoughtful approach to design will live on through them.

So for Apple it will be business as usual. But with no single individual holding such sway, we may finally be able to get a little more compromise on issues like sleekness of design against battery life or keyboard reliability.

That’s my take on Jony Ive leaving – what’s yours? Is Apple doomed? Are you cracking open the champagne? Or do you share my view that little will change? Please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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