Gossipy new accounts about Jony Ive’s final months at Apple have been rolling in since news of his departure broke last week, and boy does it seem like he was sick of working at Apple. As the company struggles to invent new products and slow-motion train wrecks its way towards a new services business, you might wonder if this may, actually, be a good thing. After all, Apple needs a new star.
Let’s not understate the obvious: Jony Ive has become a unique sort of celebrity over the years. The 52-year-old Englishman started work at Apple in 1992 and was in charge of the company’s design team when Steve Jobs returned as CEO in 1997. From that point on, it was hit after hit for Apple: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. All of the iThings define Jony Ive’s legacy and helped get Ive knighted “for services to design and enterprise” by Princess Anne at Buckingham Palace in 2012.
This is around the time that Ive started struggling at Apple. After Jobs’s death in 2011, the “cadence slowed” at the Apple design studio, says a new Wall Street Journal report based on a year’s worth of interviews with people close to Ive. Meanwhile, Tim Cook took over as CEO which bummed Ive out even more. Until then, Cook was known for perfecting Apple’s supply chain, and according to the WSJ’s sources, seldom paid close attention to product design. The paper says, “people in the design studio rarely saw Mr. Cook, who they say showed little interest in the product development process—a fact that dispirited Mr. Ive.”
So Ive pretty much stopped going to the office. Apple promoted Ive to the role of Chief Design Officer, which shifted his day-to-day responsibilities to two other executives, and according to Bloomberg, he made the 50-mile commute from his home in San Francisco to Apple’s headquarters Cupertino about twice a week. Ive also started spending more time in the United Kingdom, where his father had health problems. The design team apparently “withered” during Ive’s absence, and at least six members quit the company in the past three years. Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reports:
The departures herald a new era. The days when Apple could reliably deliver a whole new category of device — a spare music player, a sleek tablet, an elegant smartphone — every few years have waned. More recently, the company has focused on iterations of its existing lineup. Now, the company needs another hit, but this one will require fundamental technological innovation, not just the design genius of Ive and his team.
One person close to Apple captured the anxiety of the moment: “People who have been there forever don’t want to keep doing incremental updates to current products.”
It sounds a little bit backwards, but maybe this new era is a good thing for Apple. It also sounds like Ive was completely phoning it in after the problematic launch of the Apple Watch, which represented a point of tension between Ive and the company’s leadership. Ive wanted the Watch to be a high-priced fashion device. Apple executives wanted it to be an extension of the iPhone. What we got was a $350 device and a gold version of it that cost $17,000. WSJ says, “Thousands of the gold version went unsold.” Is it possible that Ive not only grew distant from his team but also out of touch with the average consumer?
In the past couple of years, Ive has apparently skipped meetings and left the country for weeks on end. He built a semi-secret private design studio in a Pacific Heights carriage house and made employees come to him for presentations, the Information recently reported. He had a 50th birthday party in England, where U2 played a concert. After that, he went to Venice, where he hung out with Julian Lennon and Woody Harrelson (LOL). He showed up three hours late to an iPhone X design meeting at San Francisco’s dystopian private club for rich tech people, The Battery, and when he got there, he reported didn’t answer key questions about the device. Tim Cook attempted to bring him back into a more day-to-day capacity, but it didn’t work. Ive promised to hold an annual design week, when he’d give direct feedback on his employees’ projects, but often wouldn’t show up, those employees told the Journal.
“It’s not that you needed him to make every decision,” one designer told the paper. “He challenged us to do better. You can’t replace Jony with one person.”
Maybe that’s okay—because Jony Ive sounds like a jerk. Having an eccentric visionary leader is sort of a tradition at Apple, but that doesn’t mean it’s a better place to work as a result. As investors wring their hands over Apple’s recent inability to create a revolutionary new product, it’s worth wondering if the design team that used to craft magic out of aluminum and glass, actually stopped doing so because they had a bad boss.
It also sounds like Ive has been out of touch for a while. The Information reports on his failed Apple car prototype presentation, the details of which are hilarious:
Mr. Ive also worked on early prototypes of Apple’s autonomous vehicle, known as Project Titan. Several years ago, Mr. Ive showed Mr. Cook a prototype of the car made out of wood and leather, which had no steering wheel at Mr. Ive’s insistence, said two people familiar with the demonstration. A nearby actress pretending to be Siri, Apple’s intelligent assistant, responded to voice commands from the executives, they said.
Who knows what will happen next. Well, we do know that Ive will launch his own design firm called LoveFrom and that Apple will spend millions of dollars a year on its services. Apparently, Ive will still be around a fair amount and will keep working on the rumored augmented reality headset that Apple hopes will be its next big hit. Ive will probably continue to live a luscious jet-setting lifestyle. (Did you know he has a house in Hawaii, too?) Apple investors, for now, are not happy about Ive’s new life. The company’s stock lost billions following news of his departure. But, you know, the market is fickle.
It will be interesting to see how Apple’s design team reinvents itself in Ive’s shadow. Maybe the company will offer up a new celebrity designer, whose warm voice will narrate big product reveals at future Apple presentations. It probably won’t be Jony Ive anymore, and in a way, it hasn’t been for quite some time.