Jony Ive's departure signals shift in Apple direction

July 02, 2019 13:10
Apple chief design officer Jony Ive (left), seen here with CEO Tim Cook, will leave the company later this year to start his own company. Photo: Reuters

Apple announced last Thursday that its chief design officer Jony Ive will leave the company later this year to start his own firm. However, Ive's association with the US tech firm doesn't end there as Apple will be his new company's first customer.

Nonetheless, Ive's departure is one signal that Apple has entered a new era where hardware may no longer play a role as important as it used to have in the company's rise in the field of technology.

For one thing, Apple has shifted its focus to the service business to drive its future growth.  

As such, the company is expected to put more effort into software design as the "user-friendliness" of a product is a key element in convincing customers to pay for a service, rather than hardware.

That being the case, Apple will be highlighting user interface as a chief consideration for its design team.

An official press release announcing Ive's impending departure notes that “Apple’s design team, recognized with countless design awards, brings together creatives from around the world representing multiple disciplines, including user interface, industrial design, graphic and font design, haptics and sound design.”

One of the latest features in Apple products that seek to enhance user interface is the introduction of dark mode for both the iOS and macOS. A system-wide dark mode helps a lot in the saving battery power of iPhone and other Apple products.

Android will have a similar feature in its latest Android O release while several popular apps have also introduced their own dark mode.

However, the fact remains that the design of many Apple products seems to have lost touch with consumers. Take the case of the Apple Watch. Not too many users are enamored of its squarish form factor as most people prefer the round shape of a traditional wristwatch case.

A Wall Street Journal report suggested that Ive figured in an internal clash with other Apple heavyweights over the position of Apple Watch in the scheme of things. According to the report, the CDO viewed the product as a fashion item, while others saw it as an iPhone accessory. This conflict of vision could have contributed to the product's disappointing first-year sales. It could also have been a factor in Ive's decision to leave.

It was difficult for outsiders to know the real situation when Apple Watch launched in 2015. But given Angela Ahrendts' resignation as head of retail, and the news about Ive a few months after, it is possible that some people at the top may not be seeing eye to eye. It could be evidence that Cook probably prefers to focus on the functions and features of Apple products, instead of just selling them as “luxury products”.

The poor market response to the Apple Watch Edition may have served as a wake-up call for Apple management that technology gadgets are still different from traditional luxury products. Hence, Apple shifted its focus and started building it as a healthcare accessory, and this has been a factor in its continued rise in market share. The recent addition of ECG function in the Apple Watch cemented the company's leadership in the healthcare accessory market as well.

Interestingly, the Apple Watch design was under the supervision of chief operating officer Jeff Williams, with Evans Hankey, vice president of industrial design, and Alan Dye, vice president of human interface design, as design leaders.

Also, it should be noted that while Ive is an arts degree holder who has spent years in the design industry, Williams' background is in mechanical engineering.

Indeed, the shift in the reporting line for Apple Watch to Williams indicates that Apple will focus more on the use, function and feature of a product, and less on having a sexy design.

Ive used to be one of Apple's key spiritual leaders along with Steve Jobs before Jobs passed away in 2011. Ive’s close relationship with Jobs shaped the design language of Apple products over the past two decades, from iMac and iPod to iPhone and iPad. All these products blossomed in the golden era of Apple under the leadership of Jobs.

But after Tim Cook took the helm, Apple has become principally an iPhone company, which generated more than half of its revenue from the iconic smartphone.  

Critics also pointed out that the new Apple under Cook is no longer a “special” company as it used to be during Jobs' leadership. Many users note that the design of Apple products such as iPhone and iPad has failed to catch up with the latest market developments. For example, the notch on the iPhone screen has not disappeared, even if it has been widely criticized by fans for years, as it serves as the location of the Face ID component.

As Apple shifts its focus from hardware to software, design appears to be taking a back seat. The new iPhone and iPad models will still be based on the design language that fans are familiar with, but they will have more powerful hardware to support the company's service offerings.

Form follows function, indeed. But consumers who want a sexy smartphone to show off to friends may have to look at other brands for a better choice.

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EJ Insight writer