Forstall Out; Ive Up

Blockbuster executive leadership change at Apple; Scott Forstall has been shown the door. Here’s the key passage:

Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design. His incredible design aesthetic has been the driving force behind the look and feel of Apple’s products for more than a decade.

Eddy Cue will take on the additional responsibility of Siri and Maps, placing all of our online services in one group. […] Craig Federighi will lead both iOS and OS X.

Forstall has long been a polarizing executive within Apple. Remember this piece by Austin Carr for Fast Company six weeks ago, on the tensions within the company regarding skeuomorphic UI design?:

Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. “You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI,” says one source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process.

But before Forstall, it was Steve Jobs who encouraged the skeuomorphic approach, some say.

The biggest tell, though, might have been this interview with Jony Ive by Shane Richmond for The Telegraph, back in May:

When I mention the fake stitching, Ive offers a wince but it’s a gesture of sympathy rather than a suggestion that he dislikes such things. At least, that’s how I read it. He refuses to be drawn on the matter, offering a diplomatic reply: “My focus is very much working with the other teams on the product ideas and then developing the hardware and so that’s our focus and that’s our responsibility. In terms of those elements you’re talking about, I’m not really connected to that.”

He’s connected to it now.

Forstall has been around for a long time: he started at NeXT in the early ’90s and had been involved in the evolution of NeXTStep, Mac OS X, and iOS ever since. That makes it all the more telling that Apple’s press release contains no quote from Tim Cook offering kind words or thanks to Forstall. Compare and contrast to the quote from Cook when Mansfield’s (now cancelled) retirement was announced in May, or the personal quote from Bertrand Serlet when he stepped down in March 2011. Forstall is not walking away; he was pushed. Potential factors that worked against Forstall: his design taste, engineering management, abrasive style, and the whole iOS 6 Maps thing. I also wonder how much Forstall was effectively protected by his close relationship with Steve Jobs — protection which, obviously, no longer exists.

Say this for Forstall, though: he’s been in charge of iOS from its inception, and my understanding is that he, along with Bertrand Serlet, were the leading proponents of using OS X as the foundation of the iPhone (as opposed to something more like the embedded OS that runs iPods other than the Touch). No one is more excited than I am to see Jony Ive’s design taste spread to Apple’s software, but under Forstall’s leadership, iOS has been an unprecedented success.

In what was almost a mere postscript to the press release, Apple also announced that they’ve canned retail chief John Browett, whose performance has garnered zero acclaim. Canning Forstall is a big change; Browett, on the other hand, is still so new that he never even got around to managing a single holiday quarter. I wouldn’t read anything more into Browett’s departure than that Tim Cook knows how to recognize a mistake and correct it. (Although it was Cook who hired Browett in the first place.)

One of the things I admire about Apple is their plainspokenness, both in advertising and in press releases. Just today I linked to a piece by Derek Thompson for The Atlantic, in which he makes the interesting observation that Apple’s quarterly earnings releases contain remarkably fewer words than other large corporations. At first glance, the headline of the press release announcing Forstall’s departure seemed to go against this: “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services”. That was followed by a subhead: “Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi Add Responsibilities to Their Roles”.

Thinking about it some more, though, and considering what I know about Forstall’s reputation within the company, I think that headline, euphemistic though it is, tells the plain truth: Forstall was an obstacle to collaboration within the company. Now he’s gone, and his responsibilities are being divided between four men who foster collaboration: Ive, Mansfield, Cue, and Federighi.

Federighi, like Forstall, dates back to NeXT, and has moved up the ladder quickly after returning to Apple in 2009. Mansfield has had a curious year — five months ago he was retiring, then he un-retired, and now he’s taking over a new “Technologies” group encompassing all wireless and semiconductor engineering. Who better to take over Maps than Eddy Cue, the guy who took over the disaster that was MobileMe and turned it into the far-from-perfect-but-pretty-good-overall and steadily improving iCloud?

But the big news today is about Jony Ive. I don’t think it can be overstated just how big a deal it is that he now oversees all product design, hardware and software. For the last year, outside observers have been left to wonder just where the buck stopped for UI design at post-Jobs Apple. That question has now been answered: Jony Ive.