After Jony Ive: What's the future of design at Apple?

(Image credit: Apple)

Earlier this week, the news broke that Jony Ive is leaving Apple. He's creating his own company, LoveFrom. But, LoveFrom is taking on Apple as a primary client. To figure out what all that means for Apple now and going into the future, I sat down to chat with John Gruber from Daring Fireball and The Talk Show.

Rene Ritchie: Thanks for joining me John. So, what was your initial reaction to the news?

John Gruber

Gruber: I think it's eyewash. He's actually starting a company with Marc Newson. LoveFrom is a questionable name. I do think they're going to work together for many years to come. They've already worked together on a bunch of things, including bringing Marc Newson in to design a bunch of Apple Watch straps.

Including using his, to me, iconic design for the Sport Band, that little tuck-under thing. It really comes from, what was it called, the Ike-...

Rene: Ikepod, yeah.

John Gruber

Gruber: Ikepod watch that he designed years ago. They obviously just have a mutual affinity and respect for each other. I think that this angle that he's still going to be working for Apple as a client is eyewash. I think that that's just spin.

Rene: Hope you like Frog Design pre-Ive.

John Gruber

Gruber: I don't think so. I don't think so at all. I don't. I could be wrong, but why does Apple still have a big industrial design team? I just feel like the way that Apple works, they're so insular, I just don't see how that would work. I could be wrong.

Rene: They did that thing for a while, where they pitted Chiat Day against, was it Hiroshi? I forget his name. It was a turtle...


Rene: I wonder if there was just a couple years of, "Hey, you guys want to compete with Jony," just to get everybody motivated.

John Gruber

Gruber: Maybe I'm overstating that. Maybe it is true. Where I could see that coming in would be for truly new products, like that Ive and Newson might, outside the company, play a big role in the design of AR glasses.

They're already working on that, so they may already be designed, but whatever new products that haven't been started yet, or are in the very early stages. Maybe he will play some sort of role. I think on a day-to-day basis, he's out. That's my take.

I kind of feel, and I don't think you have to read too much between the lines. From some of the interviews he's done, including like I mentioned yesterday, Ian Parker's tremendous, absolutely tremendous, very long profile for the New Yorker in 2015, where he talked about being really tired after doing the Apple Watch. I think that that profile came out before his promotion to chief design officer.

Rene: It was part two of a three-part saga.

John Gruber

Gruber: I just got done doing my podcast with Ben Thompson. Ben Thompson, I gave him the being right credit that saw he chief design officer as the first step out of the door. Timing-wise, you could say, "Well, he was still there for four more years, five more years," however long it's been. Maybe he wasn't right.

If you thought that was the beginning of the end of Jony Ive at Apple, three, four, or five years is probably about right. I give Ben Thompson credit for calling that, but I don't think it's been that clear. I think some people who maybe have been thinking that for a while, like, "Hey, maybe Jony Ive is on the way out," the story isn't that clear.

He took that job and then had hardware and software design people reporting to him. Then a year or so ago, he came back, and they even said he more of a day-to-day responsibility, more or less coinciding with wrapping up Apple Park.

Rene: Absolutely. One of the interesting things for me is that, if you talk to some people, they'll say, "Jony checked out when Steve died," that that was the greatest collaboration of his life. It was just never the same after that.

You talk to other people, and it's like, "He went to make Apple Park, and he went to make the Apple retail experience, because he had made so many products. He wanted to do something else, and that's when he checked out."

You and I also both know people on HI who still talked, or on industrial design, who still present to Jony on a regular basis. He's still involved promotion or photography, and all that kind of stuff. To me, it's like, it wasn't clear. The things that really interested Jony, he kept a close handle on. It wasn't a big deal that he stayed in San Francisco, because most of those teams lived in San Francisco, anyway.

John Gruber

Gruber: Yeah. His team has always worked fairly independently. They're sort of hermetically sealed, both physically and metaphorically. They've been sealed off.

Rene: Like literally, in a vault.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right. I think building another vault in a design studio near or in his house in San Francisco, it's just another vault. It's just like having two secure locations.

Rene: Absolutely. It saves you an hour-long commute, which is not the best use of his time.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right. It's like a story that I heard that springs to mind in terms of how involved he still is, is somebody told me, somebody who works on, let's say...I don't want to get too specific, but part of iOS software. They had a meeting with Jony Ive. This story was relayed to me a couple of weeks ago, after the Samsung Galaxy Fold debacle.

It came out and went to reviewers, and they were days away from supposedly selling to consumers. The reviewers would use it, and within 24, 36 hours, the thing was falling apart. It broke. Half the screen wouldn't work. The story that I was told was, back in February, there was a meeting. It was a software meeting. It wasn't even hardware.

Jony was still involved, and it was a meeting ostensibly about some new iOS software. It was the day that Samsung announced the Fold. It was the hot news of the day. It just was something they were talking about internally.

At this meeting about just something totally unrelated, Jony Ive said, "Oh, you know what? That's not going to work," and explained in exquisite technical detail why this folding screen that Samsung just unveiled to the public and was the sensation of the day, he was like, "Yeah, this is going to be unreliable. It's going to fail for these reasons. These are the pressure points that are going to cause the screen to malfunction."

He knew everything you could know about OLED folding screens and knew all the shortcomings of them to an exquisite technical detail, and was able to express it just the way that a great teacher can put things into the most understandable terms.

Rene: They were working on foldable displays for years. I think ultimately, they decided to fold them underneath, make the iPhone X, and not outside, to make a folding phone. That was his understanding of the application and limits of the technology.

John Gruber

Gruber: People who think he's been checked out for years, which is the phrase, I think, that has been bandied about, I don't think that's true at all. That's why this announcement happened. That's why he's not just continuing to hold the title. If he's really going to leave, they're going to announce it, and he's out.

Rene: You've already written extensively about the transition, but for people who aren't aware yet, when he leaves, Evans, who's running the industrial design team, and Alan Dye, who is running the human interface team, are going to report to Jeff Williams, which on the surface is a really odd choice. Both of us have spoken to Jeff Williams before.

I've spoken to him a few times, and every time, though, it hasn't been about operations. It's been about his deep love of product. He's obviously not an industrial designer. He's not an interface designer, but he seems to have incredible interest in just product in general.

John Gruber

Gruber: That's the one point that I think, I don't want to say I got it wrong, but by writing, I wrote my column about this news within an hour of it breaking. My take was pretty critical of this new hierarchy, where now that hardware and design chiefs report two levels below Tim Cook by reporting to Jeff Williams. Jeff Williams is operations. Why is this stuff under operations?

My joke was that they might as well report to the Xcode team or something. It just doesn't make any sense. I think design really needs to be that important. A day later, the thing I'm thinking that I missed in this announcement is that it was obviously primarily announcing that Jony Ive is leaving the company. Secondarily, it is, to me, the announcement that Jeff Williams is now the...

He's always been second in command. That's sort of what COO has always meant at Apple, from when Tim Cook was the COO and Steve Jobs was CEO. It isn't so much about operations as it is about just being second in command.

Jeff Williams has been running product for Apple Watch from the inception of the project. From when it was a concept to the present day, Jeff Williams has been leading. That's why Jeff Williams is always onstage announcing new Apple Watch hardware, because whoever is in charge of something tends to be the person Apple puts onstage to announce it.

What this means to me is more of a promotion. Do I think Tim Cook is on his way out? I don't think so. I don't know, but maybe. Maybe this is the first step. It could be.

Rene: What's super interesting is that Sabih Khan has been promoted to senior vice president and the executive team, but he reports to Jeff Williams and not Tim Cook. That's the first time I think that's ever happened.

John Gruber

Gruber: That's the other news that, I didn't even see that yesterday. What's his name again? I know his last name is Khan.

Rene: Sabih Khan.

John Gruber

Gruber: Sabih Khan is now senior vice president of operations. You don't create a senior vice president of operations unless that person is in charge of operations, right? Phil Schiller is in charge of product marketing. He is the man. What it says to me is that Jeff Williams isn't really running operations. Jeff Williams is co-CEOing with Tim Cook, and Sabih Khan is running operations.

Even though Jeff's title is still COO, that's just Apple code for second in command. I really think that's the second part of this. He's so much like Tim Cook, it's one of the fascinating little ying-yangs, is that Tim Cook and Steve Jobs were so different, so different in so many ways. Both their personalities, their demeanors, where they grew up, and what their focus was on in the company.

Whereas Jeff Williams is like a clone of Tim Cook. He's like Tim Cook 2.0. I don't know. I don't want to speculate too much about this. I don't want to be like, I hope there's no headlines like, "John Gruber thinks Tim Cook is on his way out." I don't think that.

Rene: You always need that person, right? Tim Cook was that for Steve Jobs for a long time before Steve Jobs got promoted to chairman.

John Gruber

Gruber: Yeah, I don't want to emphasize too much that he's like the CEO in waiting as much as that as second in command, he's got more on his plate. Who knows? I wouldn't be surprised if the two of them keep going as CEO and COO for another 10 or 15 years.

Rene: There was this great story about how Steve Jobs forced Tim Cook to go do marketing for a while. He hated it, but he said, "You have to know how to run this company." It seems like with Apple Watch, they said, "Jeff, you've got to go run product for a while, because you have to know how to run this company."

John Gruber

Gruber: On the other hand, and I know there's idle speculation that Tim Cook might go to politics or something like that. He obviously cares very passionately about some social issues and privacy. His two heroes who he's repeated the story many, many times to, always has pictures of them, are Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., not technology people.

I don't think that that's an affectation, like he wants to...I think Tim Cook is such a genuine, honest person, I really don't think it's an affectation. I think that they really are his personal heroes. I don't see him going into politics, though. I just don't see it. What I could see him doing would be, again, pure speculation, because even if this is going to happen, how the hell would I know about it?

It's not like Tim Cook is going to tell me. I could see him maybe taking chairman of the board title. Spending more of his time as the chairman of the board of Apple, petitioning and working on privacy policy, and maybe some other social stuff. Privacy is obviously at the forefront. Have Jeff Williams become CEO, and take over the day-to-day running of the company.

If that were to happen, we would look back to today and say, "Oh, that was obvious. Yeah, this was kind of obvious."

Rene: Even if, like you said, there's a decades-long run, one of the responsibilities, including protecting the stock, is making sure there's a succession. That's important.

John Gruber

Gruber: It's very clear at this point that that would be, what happens if Tim Cook gets hit by a bus? It's very, very clear that Jeff Williams is next in line. The other thing it could just be, maybe it's a little less dramatic than my spitball idea there that Tim Cook would take over as chairman of the board, leave day-to-day operations, and devote himself to privacy policy, or something like that.

It could be a lot less dramatic than that. It could just be taking some responsibility off Tim Cook's day-to-day plate, so that he doesn't burn out. Jeff Williams and Tim Cook are, by all appearances, get along together, great collaborators. If this makes Tim Cook less likely to burn out by giving more responsibility to someone he trusts completely, this clearly seems like it's part of that.

Rene: Which is what happened with Joz and Phil Schiller and a couple years ago, where he took on all of product marketing, so Phil could concentrate on App Store and a bunch of other things.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right, definitely, right.

Rene: What is your gut now when you have Evans Hankey doing industrial design, and Alan Dye, who's been doing human interface since iOS 7, I think, he took over?

John Gruber

Gruber: My curiosity is, what happened to Richard Howarth?

Rene: He wanted to design. I think Gurman actually wrote about it. He wanted to design and not manage, where Evans really is good at managing that team.

John Gruber

Gruber: That makes a lot of sense, and that explains why Howarth didn't leave.

Rene: Yeah, he was busy with iPhone X, I think, during that whole period.

John Gruber

Gruber: I think it could be good. I do think, and again, I'm a huge Jony Ive fan. Who isn't? He deserves all of the accolades that he's being given. I do think that there's a possible upside here. It's probably a good thing in general for hardware and software design to have their own chiefs.

I think that putting all of it under Jony Ive, I'm not saying it was a mistake, but I feel that, without a collaborator like Steve Jobs to edit, with nobody else above him to say, "You know what? No. We don't need to make the keyboard that thin."

Rene: Also, it would have been Scott, and Jony, and Scott did not get along, so it could not be both of them.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right, exactly. It would have been Scott. Post Steve Jobs dying, if there would have been separate hardware and software chiefs, it would have been him and Forstall, and they were...

Rene: [laughs] Famously.

John Gruber

Gruber: Yeah, famously did not really get along. I think the story is that Jony Ive, at some point after Steve Jobs died, just simply said, "If Scott Forstall is in a meeting, I won't be in the meeting." It was bad. Whoever's design taste you want to be a fan of, I think Tim Cook recognized that it was untenable to have two people that essential who couldn't get along with each other.

Rene: You can be brilliant people, not work together, and flourish in other circumstances when that happens.

John Gruber

Gruber: I think it's fair to say that Jony Ive is fundamentally a hardware person, a physical form factor. You just think back to all of the videos he's narrated. It's not like, oh, when they make those videos, Jony Ive, they just said, "Jony, show up at 11:00 AM. We'll have a script for you to read, do a take."

One of the things that I know for a fact is that those introduction videos, those Jony Ive-narrated videos, he's intimately, he's effectively the director. He is as intimately involved with the lighting, the camera swoops, the timing, and the sound as Steven Spielberg is when he makes a movie. He's directed those movies. Every single word he says is very carefully chosen.

When you think about them, they're almost always entirely about the physical object. That's his thing.

Rene: The tension with his minimalism and hardware is it means software has to be more considerate. If you're minimalist in the software, too, it creates a lot of tension in the usability.

John Gruber

Gruber: Yeah. I think his stewardship as the software design chief is questionable. It's clearly his lesser talent. I really feel safe saying that. I feel part of it, too, is that the software post-iOS 7 has always been subservient to the hardware. I think that the reset button that they hit was the right thing. Going to a minimalist, stark design...

Rene: The photorealism had gotten out of control in iOS 6.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right. I've written about this. I really do believe that it's true, is that it was more important to have the depth and texture in the pre-Retina days, because it was eye candy to mask the relatively crudeness of the pixels. Even at 163 pixels per inch, like the original iPhone, which when it came out, was the highest pixels per inch of any consumer product I had ever seen.

I remember looking at the original iPhone, in addition to just being amazed at the responsiveness and all sorts of other things, just thinking, "My god, this display is beautiful, because the pixels are so small."

163 pixels per inch, or dots per inch, a printer that only outputted 163 pixels per inch is a terrible printer. I probably couldn't see it now, with my aging eyes, but I remember when laser printers went from 300 to 600 DPI, being able to easily tell the difference side-by-side.

Rene: Or dot matrix in the old days.

John Gruber

Gruber: Yeah. The old pixel screens, especially on the Mac side of the things, where the pixels per inch was more in the lower, closer to 100 pixels per inch, it's really just a crude resolution. Doing things like making buttons look like they're lickable candy and stuff like that, anti-aliasing everything, and having textured backgrounds for apps that looked like leather, and all that stuff.

It all was a way to mask how crude the screens are. I do that in the Retina era, and iOS 7 is close to when that started, getting away from that was the right thing to do. You don't need to do that.

Overall, I really do think that having someone whose single responsibility is software -- in this case, it's going to be Alan Dye -- who can report right to Jeff Williams, not without consideration of the hardware, but can just be a wholehearted advocate for making the software as good and usable as it can be is probably better.

I just don't think it was ever Jony Ive's forte. Again, I don't think it was a mistake to put him in charge of it when they did. Just as a decade moves on, I think that him stepping away from it, and giving up the control of that, could be really good for Apple.

Rene: What are thinking in terms of the future of Apple design? What are you going to look for? Is it going to be the products they ship, the directions they go?

John Gruber

Gruber: My eye will be most on the software. I would really like to see the software take a turn towards a -- to put it succinctly -- go back to design is how it works. Again, huge fan of Jony Ive. His work is phenomenal. If I just want to criticize it a bit, I do feel that there's a tendency in his work to be a little bit more design is how it looks.

Rene: I think it's the minimalism thing. I think when people look at the thinness, and they look at the design, that's really just, he wants to go down to a slab in almost everything. He wants to eliminate anything that 80 percent of people don't use 80 percent of the time. I think that starts to create frustration for people who are on those border edges.

John Gruber

Gruber: I think Apple has been aware of this and has been self-correcting internally for a while. One thing is, no company can stay the same, especially in the technology industry. Maybe like a restaurant can, like our House of Prime Rib in San Francisco from all appearances, hasn't changed at all since 1955, and doesn't need to. It's hard to get a table. It's hard to get in, doesn't need to.

Technology isn't like that. Technology is the opposite of that. Every single product Apple sells today is going to be off the market in two years, hopefully. [laughs] They'll probably still be selling that same $999 MacBook Air, I guess. We're probably with that for the rest of our lives. For the most part, Apple's products turn over. I would like to see a return to more of an emphasis on how things work.

Again, I don't want to pin something single-handedly on Jony Ive, but on the brief podcast or whatever we call this video, it's hard not to look in Jony Ive's direction when we think about the keyboard issues with the MacBook Pro. It really has all of his hallmarks on it. They certainly look better, and being thinner is, in general, better.

Rene: Theoretically, they have good qualities like being stable, and things that you find beneficial in a keyboard.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right, but they don't work as well.

Rene: In practice, yeah.

John Gruber

Gruber: Again, this, to me, is a sign that Apple has already spent years, "OK, we went that way, now we're correcting," is look at the Mac Pro. The new Mac Pro really is clearly a workstation for serious professionals who need absolutely the most performance they can get, whether the performance is CPU, GPU, RAM, or fast SSD storage, or all of those things, maybe.

Whatever you need, that device is for you. The 2013, AKA trashcan Mac Pro, is, if you really just look at it in the abstract, especially now that it's been...I guess you can still buy one. Obviously, a replacement has been announced, and it's very different. The 2013 Mac Pro, it's not a good computer for actual workstation professionals. If you really think about it, it looks like Jony Ive's idea of a Mac Pro.

Rene: It was built to answer questions that the people who end up using it weren't asking.

John Gruber

Gruber: Right. Every single thing about it seemingly appeals to Jony Ive's personal sensibilities. It is small. It is gorgeous.

Rene: It's ingenious with the cooling.

John Gruber

Gruber: It is ingenious with the cooling. It makes clever use materials, and it's really completely unsuitable to the needs of professional workstation users. [laughs]

Rene: One of my favorite things that a mutual friend, John Siracusa, once said is that when Pixar was bought by Disney, you would no longer get those moments of sheer genius, but you probably wouldn't get the cataclysmic failures that result when genius misses.

That Apple post-Steve Jobs was similar to that. You wouldn't get the heights of Steve Jobs' product savvy, but also some of the big misses that Steve ended up shipping would hopefully would get mitigated.

I wonder if the same will be true after Jony, where that team might not have those moments of absolute inspiration that he had, but they'll also catch things that would have misfired, like that Mac Pro, or like the keyboard.

John Gruber

Gruber: We'll see. Again, it's really hard to criticize the man's work, but that's what we're here for.