Steve Jobs’s resignation has dominated technology and business news since it was announced last night, and there has been a lot of speculation about how Apple will navigate the coming years without their charismatic CEO. It’s not an unfair thing to do—Jobs has left his mark on the industry like no other chief executive in recent memory. But he has also left an indelible impression on the company he founded over 30 years ago. It will take a long time for Apple to lose that religion, if ever.
Tim Cook has taken over as CEO after essentially performing that role for the past seven months. In that time—and during two previous stints while Jobs was also out on medical leave—he has proven himself up to the task. Apple owes much of its current profitability to Cook’s operational genius— when he was first hired, he slashed Apple’s enormous inventories and since then has secured supplies of important parts in such high quantities and at such low prices that competitors can’t hope to beat Apple on price.
No one doubts Cook’s abilities as a day-to-day manager. What they fear is that Cook lacks Jobs’s vision. Really, we have no proof of that, and we’ll likely never know. Here’s why: Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design and a large part of the genius behind the company’s most important products, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
Ive was lured to Apple shortly after Jobs returned as interim CEO in 1997 and has followed Jobs lead ever since. Ive and Jobs have worked closely on product design, so closely that I would argue Ive can conceptualize a product as well as Jobs. Jobs has been tutoring Ive in the skill of product prognostication for years.
The design process of the original iMac G4—the “desk lamp” design—is a great example of Jobs’s tutelage. Ive had proposed a design not unlike the current iMac, with the computing guts hanging behind a flat panel LCD. At the time, LCDs were relatively small, and in my estimation would not have elegantly hidden all the necessary drives and circuit boards. Jobs probably saw this limitation, too. After Ive pitched the design, Jobs invited the designer over to his house for a more informal chat. The design wasn’t bad, Jobs said, but it wasn’t great. As the two were walking through Jobs garden discussing the design, they had this exchange, recounted in a Time Magazine article about the new computer:
“Each element has to be true to itself,” Jobs told Ive. “Why have a flat display if you’re going to glom all this stuff on its back? Why stand a computer on its side when it really wants to be horizontal and on the ground? Let each element be what it is, be true to itself.” Instead of looking like the old iMac, the thing should look more like the flowers in the garden. Jobs said, “It should look like a sunflower.”
Lessons like these are not easily learned but neither are they easily forgotten. Ive has not only proven himself a creative genius, but also an astute student.
Ive’s designs are successful not only for their artistic appeal, but also for the way they they take manufacturing and engineering into account. Witness the unibody MacBook Pro. Without the design team understanding the engineering opportunities and challenges of carving a laptop from a single piece of aluminum, the design would have flopped. Because of that attention to detail, their designs are both easy and profitable to manufacture. Anyone can design a stunning design, but not everyone can translate it into a shipping product.
Jonathan Ive is Apple’s right brain to Tim Cook’s left. That’s not to say Apple will adopt RIM’s co-CEO approach (nor should they—that’s turned out to be a complete disaster). Rather, the two seem to understand each other in ways many other designers, engineers, and managers do not. That synergy will prove invaluable in Jobs’s absence. Plus, they’re steeped in the Jobs way. Cook and Ive understand enough of what it takes to make an Apple product that I can see little reason for the company to stumble.
Photo by dotmotion.