Opinion: Jony Ive leaves Apple, but it's not on a design high
Jony Ive will always be an Apple icon. Behind co-founders Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak, Ive is perhaps the most significant figure in the company's history. His partnership with Steve Jobs during Jobs' second coming as Apple CEO took Apple out of the doldrums and helped position it to become the largest and most successful technology company in history. Who can forget the iconic Bondi Blue iMac G3 (1998-2003) that helped to turn the company's fortunes? It was the first of a succession of iconic designs including several iPods and then of course the 2007 iPhone which initiated the second Apple-triggered computing revolution after the original Apple II.
However, Ive leaves Apple not on a product design high. Arguably, the last properly iconic design to come from directly under his tenure was the iPhone 5 (which was then rehashed for the iPhone SE). Over the past few years, however, rehashed designs have become the hallmark of Apple flagship products. Apple is no longer the design leader on the market with plenty of other smartphone makers and even PC makers stepping in to take away Apple's mantle. As I wrote recently for Notebookcheck, Apple is becoming synonymous with boring as a result, even if it continues to be spectacularly successful on the whole.
Steve Jobs once said, "There's an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been. And we've always tried to do that at Apple." This is not Apple we know today under CEO Tim Cook. Its MacBooks are very conventional, save for the questionable Touch Bar, and its flagship iPhone is headed for a third year fundamentally unchanged, unsightly display notch included. In fact, the competition is doing a better job of skating to where the puck is going to be.
Vivo's APEX Concept Phone 2019 is a perfect example. It is fashioned from a single unibody glass structure that is both buttonless and portless -- it is the kind of stunning and perhaps controversial design that we used to expect Apple to deliver first. Same too for the Asus Zenbook Pro Duo, which features an advanced dual touch screen design that leaves Apple MacBooks eating its dust for innovative design. There are many other examples of both smartphone and notebook designs from Android and PC makers that eclipse Apple's offerings for things like display resolution and other design features that we used to expect from Apple -- Oppo's breakthrough in-display selfie camera is but another example of this.
The past few years have seen Jony Ive focused primarily on bringing Jobs' vision for the Apple Park campus to life and it is undoubtedly an iconic building design; but that is not what will, or has, defined Apple - this is has always been its hardware. Under Tim Cook (who has been content to penny pinch by the said rehashing of product designs knowing they will sell to the Apple faithful anyway), Apple is pivoting to offset declining iPhone sales by focusing more on software and services. Little wonder that Ive is just the latest of several Apple product designers to leave the company. Notably, he is also taking the highly regarded Australian-born designer Marc Newson with him to form LoveFrom, Ive's new design studio.
Although Apple and Ive have been at pains to point out that Ive's relationship with Apple will continue as the first design client for LoveFrom, it will focus on the only Apple product in recent times that has held interest for him - the Apple Watch. This is where both Ive and Newson expended most of their energies. Perhaps only the new Mac Pro design also bares significant input of the two designers and the timing of Ive's departure following its recent launch suggests that this in fact the case. While everyone can see that the new Mac Pro will be a more effective product solution than the circular "trash can" Mac Pro it replaces, the 2013 design is arguably more iconic, if not simply more adventurous.
Ive leaves Apple at a time where much of its product line is comprised of rehashed designs. While nice enough, none are the kind of cutting-edge industrial designs that made Apple the envy of the consumer technology market. Given this scenario, it is not like Apple is going to especially miss him. In his role as Chief Design Officer (effectively akin to an emeritus professor title in an academic institution), Ive hasn't been central to the design of Apple's products for the past few years. And it probably shows. His interests have been elsewhere and starting up his own design firm is a natural evolution of where things have been heading. Five or ten years ago, losing Ive would have been a massive blow. Losing him now isn't going to dramatically shift day-to-day operations at Cupertino, even if the market has reacted with some shock at his departure.