The man who helped give the world candy-colored computers eventually walked out the door. What does that mean for the company’s next big thing?
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Tripp Mickle, who covers technology for The Times, is the author of the book “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul,” from which this article is adapted.
After two years of development, thousands of engineering hours and countless days agonizing over the suppleness of leather and strength of gold for Apple’s bold new product, the company’s design chief, Jony Ive, was thrust into a high-stakes debate over the most primitive concern: a tent.
It was 2014, and Apple’s future, more than ever, seemed to hinge on Mr. Ive. His love of pure, simple lines had already redrawn the world through such popular products as the iMac, iPod and iPhone. Now, he was seated at a conference table with Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, the two men embodying nearly 40 years of collaboration, with one designing and the other assembling the devices that turned a failing business into the world’s largest company. They both wanted another hit, but Mr. Ive was pushing for a product reveal more audacious than any in the theatrical company’s history.
The Apple Watch was slated to be introduced at a local community college auditorium near the company’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. To bring cosmopolitan gloss to a suburban landscape of strip malls, Mr. Ive recommended removing two dozen trees and erecting a lavish white tent.
His extravagant vision wasn’t going over well.
“They want $25 million,” a colleague said of the event’s price tag.
Apple marketers at the table were aghast. Few could comprehend the logistics of moving trees, much less the staggering cost.
It was a microcosm of the challenges beginning to haunt Apple’s top designer. He believed the watch’s success hinged on persuading the world that it was a fashionable accessory. He regarded a rave from Vogue as more important than any tech reviewer’s opinion. The tent was critical to making the event as glamorous as a high-end fashion show.
But under Mr. Cook’s leadership, Apple was increasing its scrutiny of every dollar it spent and debating many ideas Mr. Ive proposed. The marketers not only questioned the expense; they also favored a more traditional product introduction, focused less on how the watch looked and more on what it could do, like tracking a workout or tapping a wrist with a text message.
Mr. Cook rocked in his chair as the group discussed Mr. Ive’s idea. It had been nearly three years since Steve Jobs died at the age of 56, and as C.E.O., Mr. Cook had looked to Mr. Ive — the man Mr. Jobs called his “spiritual partner” — to lead product development. The designer’s value to the company was so great that Mr. Cook feared that investors would sell shares if Mr. Ive left. Former company executives estimated that an Ive departure would erase more than $50 billion from Apple’s market value, or as much as 10 percent. Mr. Cook stopped rocking. “We should just do it,” he said.
To many present, Mr. Cook’s approval seemed like a win for Mr. Ive. But the designer would later recast it as a Pyrrhic victory. He would tell colleagues that the debate over the event and the larger struggle over the watch’s marketing were among the first moments that he felt unsupported at Apple.
With time, his grievances would grow. In the wake of Mr. Jobs’s death, colleagues said, Mr. Ive fumed about corporate bloat, chafed at Mr. Cook’s egalitarian structure, lamented the rise of operational leaders and struggled with a shift in the company’s focus from making devices to developing services.
Disillusioned with Mr. Cook’s Apple, Mr. Ive would depart five years later, in 2019. His exit would change forever the balance of power at the top of a company long defined by its product ingenuity, leaving it without one of its most creative thinkers and the driving force behind its last new device category.
Today, Apple boasts a market value of $2.57 trillion and a lineup of legacy products that have helped it preserve its perch as America’s largest public company. In Mr. Ive’s absence, Mr. Cook has accelerated a shift in strategy that has made the company better known for offering TV shows and a credit card than introducing the kind of revolutionary new devices that once defined it.
This account of Mr. Ive’s resignation is adapted from a new book, “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul,” that I wrote. The book is based on interviews with more than 200 people, including former and current employees at Apple, as well as with friends and former colleagues of Mr. Ive. Representatives from Apple and LoveFrom, Mr. Ive’s design firm, declined to comment for this article.
In July 2019, shortly after Mr. Ive left, Mr. Cook called news coverage on Mr. Ive’s frustrations at Apple “absurd” and said it “distorts relationships, decisions and events to the point that we just don’t recognize the company it describes.” Mr. Cook added that the projects the design team is working on “will blow you away.”
At the time, Mr. Ive, who continues to this day to work with Apple as a consultant, said that the design team was “stronger, more vibrant and more talented than at any point in Apple’s history.”
Employees were on edge as they entered Apple’s on-campus lecture room in the summer of 1997 to hear Mr. Jobs assess their shortcomings. Since being ousted a decade earlier, Mr. Jobs had watched from outside as sales flagged at the company he co-founded. It was flirting with bankruptcy when the board turned to him for a rescue. He stepped before a despondent room and delivered a sharp rebuke.
“What’s wrong with this place?” he asked, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. “The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!”
Seated near the back of the room, Mr. Ive found the criticism refreshing. The 30-year-old Briton, who had joined Apple five years earlier, hadn’t yet realized that Mr. Jobs thought the design team was part of the company’s problem.
In the wake of the meeting, Mr. Jobs sought to replace Mr. Ive as the leader of the design team and install a world-class talent from outside. He approached an Italian car designer and another computer designer, but his former partner on the original Macintosh, Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design, urged him to keep the existing team.
“You just need one hit,” Mr. Esslinger said.
Mr. Jobs asked Mr. Ive to design what Mr. Jobs believed could be that hit: a “network computer” focused on connecting to the internet. Mr. Ive pulled together the entire design team to work on the project and prodded the group to fulfill Mr. Jobs’s request to make a computer that was joyful. They coalesced around the idea that it needed to be like “The Jetsons” TV cartoon: futuristic but familiar.
The resulting iMac featured a handle that Mr. Ive thought would make it more approachable. It came in a brilliant blue-green shade inspired by the waters of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, where one of the designers surfed. Its translucent shell cost three times as much as a standard case, but Mr. Jobs supported the expense because it was essential to the design, and he planned to sell customers on how revolutionary it looked.
As Apple prepared to unveil the iMac in early May 1998, Mr. Jobs found what he considered a fatal flaw in its components. He expected the computer to feature a slot for a CD and instead found it featured a tray. He was irate and threatened to cancel its introduction, according to employees present. After Mr. Jobs finished cursing out his staff, Mr. Ive found his boss backstage. The designer sought to calm him down.
“You’re thinking of the next iMac,” Mr. Ive said.
Mr. Jobs took a breath. The anger began to leave his face. “I got it,” he said. “I got it.”
The two men walked away together with the C.E.O.’s arm draped over his designer’s shoulder. “From then on, when Jony was in the room, it was a relief for Steve,” said Wayne Goodrich, Mr. Jobs’s longtime executive producer.
Demand for the iMac exploded. Apple sold one of the computers every 15 seconds around the world, making it, at the time, the fastest selling computer in history.
The iMac’s success cemented Mr. Ive’s relationship with Mr. Jobs. They discovered overlapping design sensibilities, with each favoring a minimalist philosophy: Keep it simple. They also balanced each other’s personalities. Whereas Mr. Jobs was voluble, direct and insistent, Mr. Ive was quiet, steady and patient. They ate lunch together regularly, and Mr. Jobs visited the design studio almost daily.
Their fast friendship and collaboration contrasted with the evolution of Mr. Jobs’s relationship with Mr. Cook. It took a push from colleagues who feared Hewlett-Packard might poach Mr. Cook for Mr. Jobs to promote to him to chief operations officer in 2005, according to people familiar with the promotion. Mr. Jobs’s decision to later tap Mr. Cook as his successor was motivated in part by the recognition that half of the company’s value came from Mr. Cook’s ability to manufacture and deliver its devices on time. Those skills would be critical to taking the iPhone from sales of 10 million units a year to 200 million.
Even so, Mr. Jobs considered Mr. Ive the company’s second-most powerful executive. He thrust the design team to the forefront of Apple’s product development process, ensuring it played a central role in the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Employees summarized the group’s clout with a single phrase: “Don’t disappoint the gods.”
On Oct. 5, 2011, a symphony of notification dings rang across Apple’s campus. An alert on employees’ iPhones delivered the news: “Steven P. Jobs, Apple co-founder, dead at 56.”
Less than 15 miles away, Mr. Ive sat in the garden outside Mr. Jobs’s home. The October sky was hazy that day and his shoes were too tight. He felt numb as he recalled the last words his boss and friend told him: I will miss our talks together.
In the months that followed, Mr. Ive seemed to the other designers to be lost in a wilderness of grief. He spent his days speaking quietly with a colleague in what others described as endless therapy sessions. The idea to make a smartwatch snapped him out of his melancholy.
At the time, both Wall Street and customers were questioning whether Apple could deliver a new product without Mr. Jobs. Mr. Ive rallied the company to silence skeptics with the watch. Because it was the first Apple product that people would wear, he wanted customers to feel that they could personalize it. He championed an array of leather and silicone watchbands. He also brought on staff with fashion expertise.
Mr. Cook seldom visited the studio during the process. On one of the few occasions he did, it was to see a Leica camera Mr. Ive had helped design for a charity auction. Mr. Ive glowed as he detailed the designers’ work on the camera for Mr. Cook, who nodded expressionlessly. People watching across the studio would later joke that they caught Mr. Cook’s eyes straying from the charity camera to the nearby design tables topped with iPhones, iPads and Macs that the company sold for tremendous profit. He stayed only a few minutes.
When Apple unveiled its watch at a community college theater in the fall of 2014, Apple employees gave Mr. Ive a standing ovation. He later traveled to Paris for fashion week where he was celebrated by fashion luminaries like Azzedine Alaïa. He seemed to have reached a new pinnacle in his career.
Instead of being energized, however, Mr. Ive seemed weary. When he assembled his team at the end of the year, designers and engineers said he complimented them for exceeding everyone’s expectations. Then he paused and exhaled.
“I’ve been at Apple for 20 years,” he said. “This has been one of the most challenging years I’ve had.”
Praise for Apple’s new device was short-lived. The Apple Watch struggled to match Wall Street’s lofty sales expectations. Analysts expected the company to sell 40 million in the first year; it sold less than half that as early buyers complained about its limited battery and functions. After curtailing initial distribution in hopes of spurring demand, Mr. Cook expanded sales into major retailers. He later shifted the marketing focus from fashion to fitness.
In the midst of those changes, Mr. Ive approached Mr. Cook and told him that he was tired and wanted to step back from the business. Without Mr. Jobs, he had assumed much of the responsibility for the product’s design and its marketing. People close to Mr. Ive said he had found it draining to fight with his colleagues over promotion and had become overwhelmed by managing a staff that stretched into the hundreds, multiples of the 20-person design team he ran for years.
Mr. Cook feared that Mr. Ive’s departure would lead investors to sell shares. To avoid that, he and Mr. Ive reached an agreement for the designer to relinquish daily management responsibilities and work primarily on new products. He would work part time. The company gave him the title of chief design officer and promoted two of his lieutenants. Only a few people inside Apple knew the truth: Mr. Ive was frustrated and burned out.
The new arrangement freed Mr. Ive from regular commutes to the company’s offices in Cupertino. He shifted from near daily product reviews to an irregular schedule when weeks would pass without weighing in. Sometimes word would spread through the studio that he was unexpectedly coming to the office. Employees compared the moments that followed with old footage of the 1920s stock market crash with papers being tossed into the air and people scurrying around in a furious rush to prepare for his arrival.
With anticipation mounting on Wall Street for a 10th-anniversary iPhone in early 2017, Mr. Ive summoned the company’s top software designers to San Francisco for a product review. A team of about 20 arrived at the city’s exclusive social club, The Battery, and began spreading out 11-by-17-inch printouts of design ideas in the club’s penthouse. They needed Mr. Ive’s approval for several features on the first iPhone with a full-screen display.
They waited that day for nearly three hours for Mr. Ive. When he finally arrived, he didn’t apologize. He reviewed their printouts and offered feedback. He then left without making final decisions. As their work stalled, many wondered, How did it come to this?
In Mr. Ive’s absence, Mr. Cook began reshaping the company in his image. He replaced the outgoing company director Mickey Drexler, the gifted marketer who built Gap and J. Crew, with James Bell, the former finance chief at Boeing. Mr. Ive was irate that a left-brained executive had supplanted one of the board’s few right-brained leaders. “He’s another one of those accountants,” he complained to a colleague.
Mr. Cook also emboldened the company’s finance department, which began auditing outside contractors. At one point, the department rejected a legitimate billing submitted by Foster + Partners, the architecture firm working closely with Mr. Ive to complete the company’s new $5 billion campus, Apple Park.
Amid those struggles, Mr. Cook began to broaden Apple’s strategy into selling more services. During a corporate retreat in 2017, Mr. Ive stepped outside to get fresh air when a newcomer to Apple named Peter Stern stepped before the company’s top leaders. Mr. Stern clicked to a slide of an X-shaped chart that showed Apple’s profit margins from sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs declining while profit margins rose from sales of software and services like its iCloud storage.
The presentation alarmed some people in the audience. It depicted a future in which Mr. Ive — and the company’s business as a product maker — would matter less and Mr. Cook’s increasing emphasis on services, like Apple Music and iCloud, would matter more.
On a Tuesday evening in late June 2019, Mr. Ive convened his design teams in a San Francisco theater for a private screening of the movie “Yesterday.”
The film imagined a world in which a singer-songwriter awakens from an accident and discovers that he’s the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles, setting up a two-hour exploration of the eternal conflict between art and commerce.
When the movie ended, Mr. Ive stepped in front of the group to speak. He was clearly inspired by the film.
“Art needs the proper space and support to grow,” he said, according to those present that evening. “When you’re really big, that’s especially important.”
A day later, June 27, the designers got a note asking them to clear their calendars for a meeting with Mr. Ive. He watched as the group assembled before him on the fourth floor of the company’s new headquarters, which Mr. Cook had officially opened a month earlier. He told them that he had completed his most important project, the new building, and that his time leading them was finished.
The faces before him turned ashen. People stared at him blankly. Others said they suppressed a chorus of internal alarm: Oh my god! This is happening!
Few knew the full extent of Mr. Ive’s battles. Few were aware of his clash with Apple’s finance team. Few understood how draining he found it to fight over marketing the watch, a product that had increased sales over time and become core to the company’s $38 billion wearables business. Yet many could recognize the tediousness of annually updating the company’s iPhones, iPads and Macs.
Mr. Ive praised the team and implored them to keep Apple true to its identity. He told them that he would continue to work with them as a contracted consultant through an independent design firm he was starting called LoveFrom. He didn’t disclose that Apple had agreed to what amounted to a more than $100 million exit package, a payout on par with the golden parachutes other corporations had offered departing chief executives.
At the most recent product event, Mr. Cook started with less tangible Apple productions — an update on the company’s broadcasting deal with Major League Baseball, and a celebration of accolades for the Apple TV+ movie “CODA.” The company also promoted a new desktop computer, trumpeting the power of the custom chip inside the machine ahead of its slim, aluminum design.
In Mr. Ive’s absence, the designers say that they collaborate more with colleagues in engineering and operations and face more cost pressures than they did previously. Meanwhile, the products remain largely as they were when Mr. Ive left. The gods have become mortals.
Tripp Mickle is a technology reporter at The New York Times and the author of the book “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul,” from which this article is adapted.
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