As the news of Jony Ive leaves Apple sinking, you'll see many people weighing in on what Ive era of Apple meant, and what's next. It's all too good because Ive been remarkably influential – a unique person who ran the design, not just for Apple's products, but for the industry as a whole. The only person who could claim the same level of both fame and influence was Steve Jobs himself.
It is annoying to continue using the word "era", but that is the word. It sounds unnecessarily scary to talk about designing computers, but it is appropriate to scale this turnover. So with Ive leaving, I'll join in and say this: era of the singular genius at Apple is over.
The truth is that it has been for some time. I would like you to look at this remarkable quote, Tim Cook gave to Financial Times for the purpose of suppressing those who would argue that Apple is in serious trouble without Ive:
"The company runs very very horizontally, "said Mr Cook. "The reason why it's probably not so clear about who [sets product strategy] is that the most important decisions there are more involved in it are the nature of how we work."
There is a much more pithy phrase for what Cook is talking about. That is the phrase when decisions are made by a consensus of a group rather than by a single person. This sentence is, of course, "designed by committees."
The unique genius is the myths about how Apple was founded and how it became the global giant it is today. And I don't mean "genius" like "very smart", but like the romantic genius – the person who is in contact with it sublime in a way, the rest of us cannot understand. This version of "genius" still lives with us today and – as many potent concepts – prove to be more of a social invention supported by technology (the need to assign value to copyrighted works) than any innate human divinity.
While Apple may have a good story of being founded in a garage, the real basic myth of Apple's genius is. You know the fable, which has the advantage of being true too. When Steve Jobs was responsible, Apple did great things: the Apple computer, the Mac. Jobs not responsible: the very poor 90's with Scully and Newton. Jobs back responsibility: Renaissance, iPod, iPhone.
After Steve Jobs, this mantle was sent to Jony Ive. And he took it quietly (literally). It was important for our concept Apple that there was a single, discerning decision maker. Someone uncompromising about quality. Someone with very good taste. A capital G Genius.
The pleasure is the opposite of the committee. John Gruber rightly points out that it is deeply strange that the two people dropped as Ives successors report to the Chief Operating Officer. I agree, but mainly because it is deeply strange on Apple .
There are two major changes to pick from each other. First, there are two people who replace Ive, not one. And secondly, they report to COO, not directly to Tim Cook. That's exactly the opposite of how Steve Jobs had created Jony Ive at Apple. Here's how Jobs himself described Ive's role:
He's not just a designer. That's why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There is no one who can tell him what to do or knock out. That's how I set it up.
Compare the quote about Ive to the former from Cook about how product decisions are made. The difference is sharp! Cook's vision is not how we imagine Apple operating. In short, as Gruber said, "I'm not worried that Apple is in trouble because Jony Ive leaves; I'm worried that Apple is in trouble because he's not being replaced."
It's too early to know if this level of concern is justified. I know it comes from a real place – it is a place where I also sit. From here, it seems that Apple has lost a step when it comes to design management. There are the easy dunks you can make on some of Apple's products like the first Apple Pencil, iPhone battery cover and iPad Smart Keyboard. But there are much more basic concerns about MacBook's keyboard, how long it took to recover from the "trashcan" Mac Pro and the oddly-ergonomic Apple TV remote.
Things about these mistakes are that we don't know their cause. One way of thinking is that they originate from a lack of product focus – there is no genius to send things back to the drawing board when they are not good enough. Another is, however, that they originate from too much focus – focus on form over function, make things thin and beautiful instead of doing things useful.
In this context, the problem was either that Jony Ive was not aware or that he had too much power and abused it. That's how we think, because our thoughts about Apple have been defined by trusting the taste of a single genius, because the design of the selection is, of course, worse than that.
The reality is to cook down Apple's design until these two conflicting explanations are reductive. Apple's product strategy is no longer dictated by a single person – and I wonder how much even I have driven it, especially in the last few years. Several stories – including this one from Bloomberg – suggest that Ive not been as engaged as he once was.
Although Ive leaving, he will still be around. More importantly, the team he was looking for does not go anywhere and will not suddenly change the entire design philosophy overnight. At least Apple designs products already, so Ive's designs will be with us a little longer.
Nevertheless, his departure will have real consequences. The first consequence is not Apple's problem, it's ours: we should stop thinking of Apple as the unique expression of a person's genius. The story has gone beyond the Great Man theory and it also needs our ideas on how Apple operates.
When I look at some of the design decisions Apple has made in both its hardware and software, the only word that comes to mind is "uncompromising." It's a virtue when it comes to a leader who is aware of quality, but it can be a vice when it comes to products to be used by messy, messy people.
Selection is a pain, they are not as mythical as a unique genius, they are often more modest than they should be. But perhaps what Apple design needs right now is a little less myth and a little more compromise.