Sir Jony Ive, the man behind a number of Apple’s pathbreaking products, is going to leave the company with which he had become almost synonymous. Ive, who had joined Apple in 1992 (his first assignment was evidently to work on the second edition of the Newton), from his own company, Tangerine. In what is an ironical twist, Apple had been a client of Tangerine when Ive was spearheading it, and Apple will also be a client of Ive’s new venture, a creative agency called LoveFrom.
It would be naive to treat Ive’s farewell to Apple as just another corporate departure. This is no mere design executive or Chief Design Officer (CDO) calling it a day. This is no high profile executive who came on stage and in videos (with that famous white backdrop) to talk about products in a matter that induced tech Zen among viewers (we still remember how calmly he explained the concept of chamfers!). And before you ask, the fuss is also not just because Ive was the man behind products like the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook, and the iPad, products which transformed computers and gadgets as we know them.
Jony Ive (I am dropping the “Sir” not out of disrespect, but out of sheer familiarity) was much more than that. For many, indeed, he was the soul of Apple. Apple as it was on Steve Jobs’ second coming, that is. After all, Apple products are known for their amazing design. Well, Ive was the man behind most of it. He was also perhaps one of Steve Jobs’ closest friends.
And it is the departure of this combination – design wizard and Jobs’ alter ego – that is going to worry Apple followers. It is a bit of an irony that for a man who achieved so much – there is perhaps no better-known designer in the tech world – for many, Jony Ive is still better known for his friendship with the legendary Steve Jobs. No, they did not get off to the best start (“F**k! You have not been very effective, have you?” is believed to have been Jobs’ reaction when he first saw his work at Apple), but with the passage of time, they became almost soulmates, if Cupertino legend (and some of Jobs’ biographers are to be believed). Perhaps the part of the day Jobs most looked forward to was walking with Ive, viewing and discussing design prototypes. Yes, he was not averse to pinching some of his ideas and presenting them as his own (typical Jobs), but there never seemed to be any animosity between the two.
Indeed, so close was the bond between the two that quite a few people felt that it was only a matter of time before Ive would take charge at Apple, although those close to the company felt that that was unlikely to ever happen, given Ive’s evident lack of “leadership ambition.” And the latter seems to have been right. By all accounts, Ive was a super creative person who was never very comfortable in the executive world and who liked nothing better than being left to his own designs and devices. Quiet and intensely private, he did not conform to the “crazy eccentric” perception that many people have of super creative people – although he liked to have pencils arranged in a specific order on his desk. He did not court controversy or attention and even in his video appearances, seemed more content to be a voice in the background – a background that was almost always snowy white, leading some to call him “the man in the white room.”
There was no doubting that he was one of the most powerful people in the company – when he had a falling out with Scott Forstall in 2012, Forstall had to leave the company. Yes, the final straw evidently was when Forstall refused to sign a letter of apology about the Apple Maps disaster, but things had started building up when Ive and he refused to attend each other’s meetings. Ive was also a cult figure in his own right – fans went crazy when he appeared on stage or on video at Apple events. And he remains one of the most quoted figures in the tech design world.
Such was his aura that even after Steve Jobs’ unexpected demise, many felt that Apple was in good hands because Jony Ive was still around. This was of course profoundly unfair to Tim Cook, but then the new Apple CEO was seen as a person who was more a logistics and administrative wizard. Apple’s core strength was considered to be the design. And Ive was the man behind that. And he was Steve Jobs’ best friend, wasn’t he? So he would obviously understand Apple design. So what if Steve went, the faithful reckoned, Jony was still around.
Well, he is not going to be. Not at Apple anyway. Although his association with the company will continue via his new outfit, LoveFrom. In that sense, it is not the end of an era. Just a change of creative geography.
So, how is his departure going to affect Apple? Well, I am not sure it will actually affect the company at the ground level that much. As we saw after the demise of Steve Jobs, Apple is more than one person. The company has shown flexibility as well as resilience. A succession plan would already be in place and knowing Tim Cook, he would have tapped Ive for his inputs on it. No, do not expect Apple to implode in design terms. And as I pointed out, Ive will continue to be associated with the company. Only his location will be external.
There will be, of course, those who will say that Ive’s departure does not mark the end of an era at Apple. That the values he has engendered and established will continue to be associated with the company and that Apple will continue to follow the path he showed….
Blah blah blah blah
The stark fact is that Ive’s departure from Apple is very significant. Because he was more than just a drawer of lines that defined gadgets. He was part of the company’s core value system. And the face of Apple’s design. That indeed is the biggest gap that Apple will have to fill – that of a person who not only designs great products but also explains the rationale behind it (perhaps some of Jobs’ legendary Reality Distortion Field rubbed off on his close friend).
The company will not just miss his creativity but also his charisma. And there will be a sense of emptiness about the next few Apple events. Because Jony Ive has left the building.
The man is finally out of the white room.