The departure of Apple's chief design officer Jony Ive has prompted questions about the company's overall strategy.
Ive's move was announced in an Apple press release last Thursday. It stated that Ive would be leaving "later this year," in order to "form an independent design company." This new venture would allow Ive to "pursue personal projects," but would also "count Apple among its primary clients," and allow him to "work closely and on a range of projects with Apple."
Apple CEO Tim Cook highlighted Ive's contributions, ranging from the 1998 iMac, the iPhone and creation of the Apple Park headquarters.
To fill the hole in Apple's org chart, Evans Hankey, VP of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, VP of Human Interface Design, will now report to Jeff Williams, COO.
Ive is quoted in the release, saying: "The team will certainly thrive under the excellent leadership of Evans, Alan and Jeff, who have been among my closest collaborators. I have the utmost confidence in my designer colleagues at Apple, who remain my closest friends, and I look forward to working with them for many years to come."
So far, so good. But on Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a feature story titled "Jony Ive is Leaving Apple but His Departure Started Long Ago." In the article, the WSJ suggests that Ive had become increasingly disenchanted with Apple after the death of founding genius Steve Jobs. Apparently, Ive had felt that the company was focusing more on the business side than on design.
The WSJ report is said to be based on "conversations" with various people who'd worked with Ive, and were "close to Apple's leadership." It depicts a company struggling to maintain the Jobs spirit of daring innovation, and instead becoming increasingly mired in corporate strategies.
Tim Cook strongly repudiated the article in a letter to MSNBC, calling it "absurd," and stating that the Apple design team is now "stronger than ever," working on projects that "will blow you away."
In the absence of further evidence one way or another, observers will need to keep an open mind. However, it has to be said that the WSJ view would square with the widely-demonstrated ‘founding genius' dilemma.
When someone like a Bill Gates is lost, successors are necessarily far more subservient to their Board of Directors, never able to take the kind of big gamble that made the company great in the first place. They tend to focus on quarterly stock reports more than on five- or ten-year plans for an evolving market.
To be sure, many companies lead long and successful lives after the departure of their founders. But their personality does change. Disney today is more vast and prosperous than Walt could ever have imagined. But while Pixar has pushed digital animation to amazing heights (with a bit of impetus from Steve Jobs, coincidentally), Disney's output of traditional cell animation output has declined, and arguably never rivaled the brilliance of Snow White, Pinocchio or even Jungle Book.
It would be strange indeed if Apple didn't undergo a similar kind of metamorphosis with the loss of its visionary founder, Steve Jobs. The departure of Jony Ive doesn't even register on that scale - but it must surely be symptomatic of the inevitable slow change that follows.
What Apple will ultimately become, of course, is not easy to predict. But change is unavoidable. The iPhone and Mac remain leading products in their own markets, but growth in those markets is tapering off. The streaming video market is about to become very crowded, and monetary services are proliferating at a frightening rate.
No amount of design genius is likely to reverse such trends. Increasingly hemmed in on all sides, Tim Cook's Apple may need a whole new kind of visionary. And it will probably become a kind of company at which Jony Ive would feel far less fulfilled.