All the Jony Ive Drama: Explained

A week ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that alleged a high level of disfunction in Apple's design department, from Tim Cook's relationship with Jony Ive, to how Jony Ive ran — or didn't run — the design organization, and how all of that led to Jony's departure.

The following evening, Tim Cook emailed NBC to call the story absurd, distorted, and not recognizable as the company it claimed to describe.

Rather watch than listen? Hit play on the video above.

And, ever since, we've seen so many tea quotes, hot takes, sides taken, and… It's exhausting. I'm exhausted and I do this for a living. I can't even imagine how tired and over it you all now.

But, we haven't seen any real progress either. The Wall Street Journal is sticking by its story, and a week later, is continuing to promote it with blurbs like "Why hasn't Apple had a hit product in years? A look at the internal drama around the departure of its design chief helps explain".

For their part, Apple hasn't elaborated any further.

Nilay Patel from the Verge has said he thinks every word of the piece is true and well reported, even if he doesn't think change is bad. Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch said bits and pieces in the various stories over the past few days that are not, as he understands them, accurate, or represented in an accurate context.

And, of course, since this is the internet, People who delighted in the account have been labeled as haters and those who recoiled at it, dismissed as apologists.

But neither the original Journal story nor Cook's retort provided enough context to reconcile those two radically different points of view.

So, rather than punish the world with yet another tea spill or hot take, I'm going to try something different.

A cool take. That's right, as an opportunity to share information. And, hopefully, insight.

The Battery

From the Wall Street Journal:

As the deadline loomed for the 10th anniversary iPhone, Apple Inc.'s top software designers gathered in the penthouse of an exclusive San Francisco club called The Battery.

Apple, like other companies, routinely holds offsites. They're meant to get teams together, outside the distractions of the main offices, to focus on specific projects — everything from brainstorming ideas to setting deliverables to presenting to executives.

Sometimes they're held nearby in South Bay. Sometimes in the city. Sometimes much further away.

Jony Ive lived in SF. So did a lot of the designers.

They had been summoned some 50 miles from the company's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters to demonstrate planned features of the product to Jony Ive, Apple's design chief, who seldom came to the office anymore from his San Francisco home.

Steve Jobs used to work with Jony Ive on industrial design and Scott Forstall on iOS software, which included Greg Christie's human interface team.

When Steve passed away, Jony couldn't work with Scott Forstall. So, long story short, Scott ended up leaving and Jony ended up taking over design responsibility for software as well.

That included iOS 7, which was a complete redesign turned around in 9 months, less time than most incremental updates, but also on Apple Watch, an all-new product that Jony threw himself into to the point of mental and physical exhaustion.

When the Watch finally shipped, something had to change.

Managing the much larger human interface team was a lot more work than collaborating with the much smaller industrial design team, and traveling back and forth from Pacifica to Cupertino each day had become increasingly frustrating given the increased demands on his time.

Not having to deal with the day-to-day management of the new unified design team, and not having to go back and forth to Infinite Loop, especially as he shifted to working on Apple Park and Apple Retail, were seen as ways to give Ive back some of his own design time.

For nearly three hours on that afternoon in January 2017, the group of about 20 designers stood around waiting for Mr. Ive to show, according to people familiar with the episode. After he arrived and listened to the presentations, he left without ruling on their key questions, leaving attendees frustrated.

There were certainly big decisions to be made for iPhone X, like would it use a digital home button on the bottom of the screen for familiarity's sake, or would it risk an entirely new, gesture-based navigation system?

But it's hard to tell what to make of this story. Why arrive three hours late rather than not go at all, why listen to the presentations and not provide feedback rather than not listen at all?

The episode was emblematic of a widening disconnect at the top of Apple that, invisible outside the company, was eroding the product magic created by Mr. Ive and the late Steve Jobs that helped turn Apple into America's pre-eminent corporation.

The episode, if accurate, talks about how Ive interacted with his human interface team but doesn't reference the top of Apple at all.

And I say "if accurate" because TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino said:

But the more important point is that no one I know felt that Jony had checked out or abandoned the team.

For what it's worth, no one I know felt that way either.

As to the product magic of Ive and Jobs, they certainly collaborated on a staggering number of iconic products, from the iMac to the iBook, the iPod, iPhone and iPad, the Titanium Powerbook to the wedge-shaped MacBook Air… Also, some misses like the G4 Cube, iPod Hi-Fi, fatty nano, buttonless shuffle, the iPhone 4 antenna, and basically every mouse ever.

But Steve Jobs died in 2011. That's not an erosion. That's an ending… Everything Jony and Apple have done since, both magic and tragic, have been the result of something new and different.

The Portégés

Few on the outside knew that for years, Mr. Ive had been growing more distant from Apple's leadership, say people close to the company. Mr. Jobs's protégé—and Apple's closest thing to a living embodiment of his spirit—grew frustrated inside a more operations-focused company led by Chief Executive Tim Cook.

Ive was Apple's leadership. Jobs had a few proteges, in a way one for each facet of his intense interests. Ive for hardware design. Scott Forstall for software. Tim Cook for Apple itself as a product.

Jobs was the glue that had held them all together but, post-Jobs, they had to all find their own relationships. And operations were always a function of design at Apple. Like we went over in the show last week with former Apple designer May-Li, you can't separate the two. You can't just make a drawing or CNC a part and expect a hundred million of them to just manufacture themselves.

As she said: People do not realize machines had to be invented and molecules had to be rearranged in order to support a great design.

When materials were hard to come by or changed at the last minute, or yields weren't as high as they needed to be, operations is what made sure they still shipped in days or weeks rather than weeks or months.

Look no further than the delays we've seen with some products, even after announcements, over the last few years. If anything, there's been a need for more operations-focus at the company.

Steve Jobs made sure Jony and design had almost unlimited power at Apple. You can see it in iOS 7. In the 18K gold Apple Watch. In the Designed by Apple in California book.

But even then, operations is what enabled that gold watch and those printed pages to ship. Same as they had during the Jobs era with products like the iPhone and iPad.

Mr. Ive, 52, withdrew from routine management of Apple's elite design team, leaving it rudderless, increasingly inefficient, and ultimately weakened by a string of departures, people close to the company say.

Before he passed away in 2011, Steve Jobs — the man who usually made every decision about everything he cared about at Apple — went on several medical leaves. During those times, he stayed as involved as he could, but he also trusted people he trusted to make those decisions when he couldn't. People like Cook, Ive, and Forestall.

Even when he was there, Jobs trusted people like Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue enough to let them do things he himself was initially against, like put iTunes and Safari on Windows and make the iPad mini.

Part of Apple's culture, the part that mitigates them against ever being rudderless, is having people responsible for everything important. People who might want and value sign-offs when they can get them but who know how to ship without them when and if they have to as well.

That's why, when Ive withdrew from routine management, he left them intentionally ruddered with new Vice Presidents. Industrial design with longtime team member Richard Howarth, and human interface with Alan Dye, who Ive had brought over from the graphic design group to spearhead the new look of iOS 7, irking a lot of feathers along with way.

One look at how many versions of iOS, watchOS, and versions of iPhone, iPad, and more recently even Mac that have shipped during the last few years shows that that culture is still alive and well.

Product Performance

The internal drama explains a lot about Apple's dilemma. Its one major new product of the post-Jobs era, the Apple Watch, made its debut five years ago.

I'm not sure what drama is explaining what dilemma. Apple is a profoundly different company than it was a decade ago. One of the other things Steve Jobs did before he passed away was recruiting chipmakers into Apple, including Johny Srouji.

So, over the last ten years, we've gone from Macs using commodity components distinguished from commodity PCs by their hardware and software aesthetics alone, to iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and more, that run almost entirely on custom components.

John Gruber and Ben Thompson spoke about that at length last week, link in the description.

What didn't change so much is Apple's cadence when it comes to major new products.

The iMac debuted in 1993. It wasn't a new category but a modern re-interpretation of the all-in-one Steve Jobs introduced back in 1984. After, sure, first introducing the Lisa in 1983.

The iPod debuted in 2001, 17 years after the Mac and 8 years after the iMac.

The iPhone and iPad, which both spun out of Project Experience Purple, debuted in 2007 and 2010, some 6 and 9 years after the iPod.

The post-Jobs era started in 2011.

The Apple Watch debuted in 2015 and shipped in 2016, roughly 8 and 5 years after the iPhone and iPad respectively.

AirPods debuted in 2016, around a year after the Apple Watch.

The HomePod debuted in 2017, about a year later. And we can certainly argue it's major-ness but it is a category Apple was accused of completely missing out on up until the moment of its launch.

Then there's Apple's augmented reality glasses, which rumor has it will debut sometime next year or the year after. Their automotive efforts, if they don't ultimately choose to shelve it like they did the television set, sometime after that.

You could include the 1999 iBook, which rejuvenated Apple's laptops, and 2008 MacBook Air, which redefined all modern laptops, in the Jobs-era list, and the 2019 Pro Display XRD, which seeks to redefine the reference monitor, in the post-Jobs list, maybe the 2015 Apple Pencil as well.

If we go beyond atoms and include packets, there's Apple Music, Apple News, and Apple Arcade and Apple TV+ on the horizon.

Like in the Jobs years, there were misses as well. HomePod, I just mentioned. The butterfly keyboards, obviously. The 2013 Mac Pro. The years without Mac updates. Still every mouse ever.

I'm not sure speed between major products is the best measure, but for the sake of context and how Apple fits into the industry at large, I can't think of many or any other company that's managed to put together a string of products with bigger cultural impact over as long period of time.

Its iPhone business is faltering, and more recent releases like its wireless AirPods haven't been enough to shore up falling sales. It hasn't had a megahit new product since the iPad that started selling in 2010.

The Apple Watch, released in 2016, had the second biggest acceleration of any product in Apple history, behind only the iPad.

AirPods may not retail at a high enough price to move the revenue needle as much, but they've been so successful they've become a meme, and like the iPod and iPhone before them, they're shaping the next generation of products in their category.

Taken together, Apple has said the revenue for wearables is already 50 percent more than iPod was at its peak.

I know that's not iPhone money but, really, nothing is. Take away the massive distortion and seemingly mass confusion of one of the most profitable products in history, and you see Apple's other businesses are really pretty damn good businesses.

Yet his departure from the company cements the triumph of operations over design at Apple, a fundamental shift from a business driven by hardware wizardry to one focused on maintaining profit margins and leveraging Apple's past hardware success to sell software and services.

There's a story from 2010, when Apple introduced the iPad. It went like this — Only Steve and Jony could make the iPad. Only Tim could figure out how to sell it for $500.

Again, I'll refer everyone back to last week's show with May-Li, who worked on the original iPhone and other projects after Steve had passed away, for a first-hand account of how operations has always supported design at Apple. Because it had to.

Happiness at Home

Mr. Cook, an industrial engineer who made his name perfecting Apple's supply chain, sought to keep Mr. Ive happy over the years, but 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.

It's interesting to read about disconnects at the top, drama, and dilemmas, and Tim Cook trying to keep Jony Ive happy over the years.

And there certainly must have been something terrifying and energizing knowing Jobs would be coming to the ID studio for his regular check-in, everyone racing to get everything ready to show him. But, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Cook isn't Jobs any more than Ive is Cook. Something they all knew and appreciated deeply. Which is why Apple had them both.

That said, it is fun to watch the reactions when Cook pauses to describe the intricacies of a staircase at an Apple Store, or grabs an iPad Pro from someone in marketing to give a full-on demo to a special guest in the hands-on area.

Almost as though what he apparently lacks in attention to design he makes up for in attention to design.

Mr. Ive grew frustrated as Apple's board became increasingly populated by directors with backgrounds in finance and operations rather than technology or other areas of the company's core business, said people close to him and to the company.

Arthur Levinson of Genentech, Ronald Sugar of Northrop Grumman, Andrea Jung formerly of Avon, now Grameen American, and Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, joined the board during the Jobs era and remain on it today. As does Tim Cook who joined just before Jobs passed away.

Robert Iger of Disney joined a very short time later. Since then, Bill Campbell of Intuit retired in 2014 and Millard Drexler of J Crew in 2015.

Apple did replace their software and retail experience with two new, finance-centric directors in James Bell of Boeing and Susan Wagner of Blackrock,

But it was also after a series of controversies from no-poaching agreements to stock backdating, and a period of rapid financial activity, including a 7 to 1 stock split in 2014 and the launch of a massive repurchasing and dividend program.

The country's most valuable company for years, Apple recently ceded top status to Microsoft Corp., and its stock remains 15% below its record high in October.

Apple's stock is 15% below its record high… which was just 8 months ago. Not back during the Steve Jobs era or when the iPad launched or before Jony went off to work on Apple Park… But while Apple was rudderless, filled with drama, and in the midst of a dilemma?

A person who worked closely with Mr. Ive for many years said Apple employees who were "newer see [that], 'Oh wow, Jony has gone away a bit,' but I don't look at it as him being distant."After many product releases over the years, including the iMac and iPhone, this person said Mr. Ive took time to recharge, adding that the company tried to create a different model where the designer could work remotely more often. "The reality was he worked just as hard and got just as tired."

This better matches what I and other people who cover Apple closely have heard. It would have been great to hear more of this perspective throughout.

The Watch

Mr. Ive was devastated by Mr. Jobs's death. The studio's cadence slowed.

The former goes without saying. The latter is hard to reconcile. Even if we leave out all the software, including the massive iOS 7 redesign and the launch of watchOS, tvOS, and just now, iPadOS, and focus only on the industrial design side, that still leaves the Apple Watch, the original iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, the new Apple TV, iPhone 5, iPhone Plus models, AirPods, HomePods, iPhone X, the 2015 MacBook, 2016 MacBook Pro, 2018 MacBook Air, the 2018 iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and the new Mac Pro and Pro Display.

If anything, the scale and cadence have only escalated over the last 8 years.

Mr. Ive had begun pushing to make a watch. He was intrigued by the potential to further miniaturize the iPhone's powerful technology into a wearable device.Some executives pushed back, questioning if a device so small could ever have a killer app that would compel people to buy it.

This is how product development works at Apple. There were two purple projects, P1, an iPod phone led by Tony Fadell and P2, an OS X phone led by Scott Forstall. P1 never shipped. P2 became the iPhone.

Steve Jobs didn't believe in the iPad mini. Eddy Cue fought for it and eventually Steve relented and said they'd do it, but it was on Eddy if it failed.

Like May-Li attested to last week, a thousand nos for every yes isn't make believe. Everything is considered and reconsidered, factored and refactored.

If no one had pushed back it literally wouldn't have been Apple.

He disagreed over how to position the Watch with some Apple leaders, who wanted to sell it as an extension of the iPhone. Mr. Ive saw it as a fashion accessory.The result was a compromise. The watch was electronically tethered to the iPhone, and started at $349. Apple also created a $17,000 gold version and partnered with Hermès.

Here's a thunker — What could the first few couple of Apple Watches have done if they weren't paired with iPhones? Not even tell time in the precise Mickey-foot-tapping way they were designed to do.

Like early iPods and iPhones that had to sync with a PC to do much of anything, the Apple Watch was just too highly constrained to handle even basic computing functions on its own. And it's safe to say everyone knew it.

There were disagreements about which specific features it should and shouldn't ship with, and frankly, there probably should have been more given the lack of focus of the first generation, but again, it's the kind of arguments we all want people inside Apple to have.

The fashion aspect, though, is what got the Apple Watch attention beyond just the computer industry and early adopters.

It was different than iPod fashion, which tweaked colors and designs at the low end almost every holiday shopping season. It was high-end fashion. Something that got fashion press to the events and got Apple Watch into Vogue and other fashion magazines, and onto the wrists of celebrities.

The gold Apple Watch was quickly retired but the Hermes one persists to this day — as does the Nike one. Because, as we've seen over the last few years, it's the fitness and now the health features that have given it that clarity of purpose.

Bus Throws

Mr. Ive told Mr. Cook he wanted to step back from day-to-day management responsibilities. The staff beneath him had ballooned to hundreds of people. He didn't want to leave, but wanted time and space to think, he told several people.

This, again, resonates with me, and is in line with what I've also heard, but again this simple rationality just doesn't get as much ink as the insinuations of drama.

It's easy to look back and say that, following the death of Steve Jobs, Jony Ive leaving Apple was inevitable. But, does that mean Apple has spent the last 8 years carefully planning and managing that departure, or has everyone involved spent that time doing everything they could to try and stave off that inevitability?

Ahead of one design week in 2016, Johnnie Manzari, who was in charge of Apple's camera app, stood before more than a dozen 11-inch-by-17-inch images of changes he planned to pitch when word trickled through the studio that Mr. Ive wasn't going to come."What am I going to do now?" Mr. Manzari said.

It's weird to see a non-executive name-dropped in an article like this. As far as I can recall or Google, Manzari has only ever been in the press once before, when he joined Phil Schiller to talk about Portrait Lighting with Buzzfeed in 2017.

When I do see something like this, it always feels dirty, like some servicing of agenda or settling of accounts. Otherwise, why grant everyone else anonymity but not this one fairly obscure person?

Who gains from that and what do they gain, exactly?

Also, according to people directly familiar with the matter, this anecdote is completely false anyway, which only makes it curiouser.

I'm going to skip ahead here, otherwise this will end up being as long as my Catalina video and no one wants that.

The Journal ends on this:

Mr. Ive's old design team—a group of aesthetes once thought of as gods inside Apple—will report to COO Jeff Williams, a mechanical engineer with an M.B.A.

Jony's old design team reports to Evans Hankey, a long time member of the team who, according to everyone I've ever spoken with, and to quote May-Li from last week's show, gets stuff done. In other words, she's a force of nature.

Evans reports to Jeff Williams just like, before Jony's brief return to day-to-day management, she and before her Richard Howarth, and before and between them, technically Jony himself, reported to Tim Cook, an industrial engineer with an M.B.A.

But, with Sabih Khan now taking over as senior Vice President of operations at Apple, it's best to think of Jeff Williams being more like what Tim Cook became to Steve Jobs — a complement.

In this case, someone to run product, at least for now, who knows, as we begin the era at least partially after Jony Ive.

This is Tim

Now, Tim Cook's response to the Wall Street Journal article pulled no punches. From Dan Byers:

"The story is absurd. A lot of the reporting, and certainly the conclusions, just don't match with reality.""At a base level, it shows a lack of understanding about how the design team works and how Apple works. It distorts relationships, decisions and events to the point that we just don't recognize the company it claims to describe.""The design team is phenomenally talented,. As Jony has said, they're stronger than ever, and I have complete confidence that they will thrive under Jeff, Evans and Alan's leadership. We know the truth, and we know the incredible things they're capable of doing. The projects they're working on will blow you away."

It's incredibly rare for Tim Cook to so publicly rebut a story. Most of the time, when faced with what they consider to be negative, even false press, they'll typically just stay quiet and take it. Anything less, to them, is punching down.

And that's usually a good strategy. Wait a day and another sensational story will come up and our ever-shortening attention spans will spin around and take momentary distraction in that instead.

When Apple or Tim Cook do speak out, it keeps the story going in the news cycle and it ups the stakes considerably by putting Tim Cook's name, reputation, and credibility on the line.

The last time Apple responded this forcefully was when Bloomberg published its Big Hack story claiming Apple, Amazon and many other companies were running servers that had been compromised at a hardware level by Chinese Intelligence. Bloomberg has stuck by that story even as independent audits have come back showing no evidence or support for it at all.

But why do it in this case?

I think many people probably read the Journal story as a hit piece. On the eve of Jony Ive leaving Apple, after 30 years of service, 30 years that reshaped not just Apple but the entire industry, they read it as an effort by a few frustrated, thirty, disenfranchised individuals to paint Ive as having abandoned his peers and his team, and as a consequence having failed to keep the magic or success of Steve Jobs alive.

And, for many in the company, that's not only ridiculous but reprehensible. They're not allowed to speak publicly on Apple's behalf. But Tim Cook certainly can.

And by sending that email, rather than this story simply becoming accepted as fact and woven into urban legend, they make sure that email dogs it with every reference and in every b-roll, every time it gets regurgitated now and into the future.

Whether you ultimately choose to believe the Journal's account or Cook's, or you recognize that simple narratives seldom if ever capture the true complexity of human relationships, is of course entirely up to you.

But I'd love to know what you think now, at the end of all of this. So, hit up the comments and give me your coldest of cold takes.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.