iOS

Apple shake-up: Why Cook has dished Ive a bigger role

The most intriguing move in Apple's management changes adds software to hardware guru Jonathan Ive's design brief. But whether Apple CEO Tim Cook has chosen wisely will only become clear with iOS 7 or OS X 10.9 in nine months.

In some ways Apple chief designer Jonathan Ive has now inherited Steve Jobs' spiritual crown. Photo: Apple

As one storm brewed on the east coast of the US, another suddenly whipped up out of nowhere on the west. All change at the top for Apple, as CEO Tim Cook unveiled a dramatic restructuring of his executive team.

Out went iOS boss Scott Forstall and retail chief John Browett. But it's the departure of Forstall that's of greatest significance.

Shortly after the news broke there was much talk of unrest in the upper echelons of Apple. Based on numerous reports there were several reasons why Forstall's career at Apple came to an end:

  • He didn't play nicely with other executives, particularly design head Jonathan Ive.
  • He had an abrasive style.
  • He wouldn't accept responsibility for errors, notably the recent Maps debacle.

A long-time Jobs lieutenant, Forstall came from NeXT and was frequently touted as the CEO-in-waiting. Not exactly an easy thing for a new CEO to have hanging over him. Now there's no doubt who has absolute control over the future of Apple.

Forstall presided over the phenomenally successful growth of iOS software with the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Under his watch the iOS platform has enjoyed huge growth and added vast wealth to Apple's coffers and to its brand.

A number of other senior VPs benefit from Cook's decisions, most notably Jonny Ive.

Ive's importance to Apple

Cook will hope this reshuffle underlines Ive's importance to Apple. In recent years there's been talk that he may be tempted back home to England. That move now looks to be on hold.

For some time he was touted as Jobs' successor when the former CEO's health was ailing but Cook was always more likely to take operational control than the celebrated designer.

However, in some ways Ive has now inherited Jobs' spiritual crown. As head of what Apple calls human interface, he will be ultimately responsible for all product design, both hardware and software.

And not before time. There's no doubt that iOS and OS X are elegant but occasionally suffer from an eclectic mix of different UI styles.

OS X's Aqua interface, first appearing in 2000 has gone from shiny candy, to pinstripe, to brushed aluminium to the more sedate greys and whites of Lion and beyond. In that time Mac users have called out for a consistent interface with many native application UIs jarring with that of the operating system.

In recent releases iOS has also suffered from an inconsistent approach to UI elements. iOS 6 is a case in point with the changes to the status bar at the top of the screen. Gone are the two options of silver-blue or transparent black. Now developers can match the status bar to the same colour as their apps. The result is a lack of cohesion for the user.

Skeuomorphic design

There's also the fuss over skeuomorphic design elements. In other words, ornamental designs that try to replicate real-world elements in digital interfaces. Take Game Centre, the iOS social gaming app, and its ornamental polished wood and green baize, or the yellow-lined paper of Note Pad. With OS typefaces Helevetica Neue clashes dramatically with Marker Felt.

Proponents of skeuomorphic design claim it's an attempt to convey simple metaphors about an app's purpose to a wider audience. To others it's a confusing inconsistent jumble of interface elements that fails to provide a consistent user experience. They think it's just ugly and inconsistent with Apple's sleek hardware design.

So for Ive it presents a tremendous challenge. Forstall was reportedly very fond of the skeuomorphic design elements his software teams brought to bear on iOS. It's doubtful that Ive holds those elements in the same affection.

According to the Isaacson biography, Ive was a big admirer of German designer Dieter Rams who proved a revelation for Braun. Jobs described Ive as someone who "gets the big picture as well as the most infinitesimal details about each product."

To get a feel for the person who is now in charge of Apple's entire product design, you only have to read the report about how Jobs and Ive visited a kitchen store and both admired and then hated a particular knife because its design had been compromised by a blob of glue near the handle.

Consistent eye for detail

Ive will no doubt bring a consistent design eye for detail to bear on all iOS UI elements. His hardware designs are sleek aluminium and glass with precision bevelled edges and seamless materials. How he addresses the software that runs on these devices will be fascinating.

His challenge for the software is to introduce consistency across iOS and OS X, while at the same time balancing that with the playfulness at the heart of Apple's software. Finding that balance will be one the most challenging part of the role. Playfulness and sleek industrial design - it sounds like trying to square the circle.

Apple's users are much more than just design-conscious, computer-savvy individuals, The audience extends across a far wider spectrum of society and the UI needs to appeal to all.

The executive reshuffle follows just a few weeks after the relaunch of most of the Apple product line. There's almost nine months to wait until we presumably see the first of iOS 7 or OS X 10.9 - plenty of time for Apple's new head of human interface to take a scalpel to the old and an herald in the new.

The end result will be intriguing. But one word of advice for fans of the Marker Felt typeface - enjoy it while you can.

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