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‘Good Bye, Jony’? Or ‘Good Bye, Steve’?

“He works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.” 

Perhaps no words sum up the role Jony Ive played at Apple as those from Steve Jobs, Apple’s iconic (and often eccentric) CEO. For many, Ive was a designer. The man who gave Apple amazing product designs, ranging from the iPhone (which he famously referred to as “not too shabby” to Jobs on stage) to the iPad to the MacBooks. To still many others, he was the design whiz who always seemed to wear oversized grey t-shirts and spoke in gentle, measured tones about products in videos that were almost always shot against a snow white background. 

But Jony Ive was much more than that.

For those who know Apple. And I mean, REALLY know the company, Ive was defined not just by his involvement with Apple’s products but his proximity to Steve Jobs. In fact, for most Apple fans, Ive was second only to Jobs in terms of name recall. Which is interesting when you consider the reclusive nature of the man himself – he has never been outspoken, has not tried to hog the spotlight and has preferred to keep a low profile. Traits which some feel ruled him out of the CEOship race of the company. Not that he ever needed to be in the top executive echelons. As Jobs himself pointed out, Ive had more operational power at Apple than anyone else. At least while he was around.

And it was this that made his presence at Apple more than just of a designer. His role was almost spiritual. Yes, people talked about Jobs’ reality distortion field, but Ive had his own aura. Of course, it was facilitated largely by Jobs’ handling of the man – he was never subjected to the sort of public scrutiny that Jobs was. Even the details that were given out about him were tailored to create an aura – he worked in a transparent glass cube office, and pencils were arranged in a particular manner on his desk, Jobs and he talked for hours and hours and took walks… he was always the quiet genius to seemed to create products with a wave of some magical wand that he possessed. His appearance in product videos became almost as awaited as Jobs’ “one more thing” line.

Just like Jobs, Ive was the ‘face’ of Apple.

And not just a face that appeared in videos. But a face that represented the ‘creative’ and ‘different’ side of Apple. And given Apple’s reliance on those two factors – something that was often expressed in terms of design – Ive’s role was critical. Could a regular executive (a Schiller or a Forstall) have been able to have the same impact? I sincerely doubt it – they were not seen as ‘artists’. Ive was. Once again, at least as long as Jobs was around.

That name and that man again. Ive seemed in many ways to be an extension of Jobs. So much so that even when Jobs passed away, many felt that the company was in good hands because “Jony was still around.” Tim Cook might have been heading the company officially, but when it came to the creative side, everyone was sure that it was Ive calling the shots. How couldn’t he? He was the man behind most of Apple’s revolutionary products since Jobs’ second coming, after all.

The big question is: was Ive really calling the creative and design shots in Apple post Jobs? We do not know. And given Ive’s quiet nature, I doubt we ever will. There were whispers in corridors that Ive was not quite as closely involved in product development in recent times, and that he had drifted away and was becoming distant. Of course, there is no way of knowing if these were true. But there was no denying that as time passed, Apple was shifting away from some of Jobs’ core concepts. Perhaps the most notable was moving from focusing on a smaller number of products and embracing a wider portfolio. There was also lesser secrecy about Apple’s portfolio, which made the company’s products just a little predictable, taking away the element of surprise that Jobs treasured. And while Apple purists turned up their noses at this approach, there was no doubting that it paid rich dividends – Apple became the first billion dollar company in the world.  

You could argue that Apple was not quite the Apple of Jobs’ time, but you could not argue with the sheer weight of statistics that Cook’s team brought to the table. Apple was selling more devices that ever before, and while it did not have the ‘genius’ feel that many felt Jobs brought to the brand, it was still in a zone of its own, not just creatively but commercially. Of course, it was a moot point whether someone like Ive would have worried about the figures – he was the one who had very famously said that Apple’s goal was absolutely not to make money.

Basically, post Jobs, Apple changed. Of course it would. It would have been naive to expect it not to. And by all accounts, it became a less paranoid, more socially aware, and gentler giant than it had been in the past. And hell, it made more money – MUCH more money – than it ever had. But just how much of this suited Jony Ive? As I said earlier, we do not know. It is unlikely that someone who had played such a big role in Apple would have been totally sidelined post the demise of Jobs. And Ive did continue making appearances in product videos and the like. But it is equally unlikely that he would have been absolutely at ease in the new world. Would Jobs have been comfortable in it? I wonder…

Whatever the truth, Ive is now out of Apple. Of course, he will continued to be involved as Apple is the first client of his new organisation, LoveFrom, a name which he says is inspired by… well, Steve Jobs. Of course it would be. And no matter how well Apple is doing commercially, it now faces a challenge of a very different sort. One that is almost spiritual in nature. It has lost a bit more than a designer. It has perhaps parted with a representative (perhaps even a bearer) of its older ethos. Does it need to replace him? I don’t know. What I do know is that the company has done astonishingly well and is likely to have a very good contingency plan in place.

I began this piece with a quote from Steve Jobs about Jony Ive. It is only fair that I end it with another one:

“If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony…He’s not just a designer.”

Indeed, he wasn’t. Which is why Apple’s challenge is not replacing Jony Ive the person. Or even Jony Ive the designer.  

You see, many feel that it is not just Jony Ive who has exited Apple.

It is also the spirit of Steve Jobs.

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Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.