Editorial

No, Apple is not making better products because Jony Ive left

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Apple is doing fine since Jony Ive left the company, and it was doing fine before he left. This does not mean that he wasn't a loss, but it also does not mean that Apple has somehow been liberated by his leaving.

Ex-Chief Designer Jony Ive was famously strong at opposing what he didn't like and doing something about it. When Scott Forstall left, for instance, and Ive got control over iOS, we got the radical iOS 7 redesign, the first overhaul of the iPhone software since the start.

Then while we have yet to see the end result of the Apple AR headset and "Apple Glass" work, it was reported that Ive vehemently disagreed with how the company was originally proceeding. Allegedly, Apple was looking to make a device in two parts, and before he left, Ive pressed instead for a single headset, even though that would necessarily be less powerful and functional.

Bloomberg wants to argue argue that Apple's design is now more practical than it was under Ive's aegis.

Saying that Apple is better without Ive is as logically fallacious as saying that something would have never happened had Steve Jobs still been alive. The statement is never about Jobs, as it is only said when the real meaning from the sayer is "I don't like this thing, and my own image of Jobs (or Ive) wouldn't have done it."

Likewise, saying that Apple is better without Ive is said through a lens of an individual user, and it doesn't apply as a blanket summary the way Bloomberg has.

Form follows function, but you choose your function

Without Ive, Apple's ultimate goal in AR would be a headset and a separate device. It could still be that we get at least one headset that requires an iPhone to be present, just as the Apple Watch does. But the idea had been to make a powerful AR device that effectively relayed images to the headset.

Unquestionably, a two-device system like that would mean Apple would have the capability to render brilliant AR and VR. It could truly innovate in AR with powerful systems and experiences no other company would match.

Except they wouldn't have sold a single one. Not outside the existing AR/VR community, not to anyone who wasn't buying for the love of technology.

Only Ive really knows what he thinks, but this argument about practicality versus aesthetics seems to be anathema to a true designer. It's bordering on saying that design is what something looks like, or that engineering must come first and you can fret about the paint later.

This is part of the claim that Apple has been freed by Ive moving on, that now it can listen to users, that it can make practical choices.

Tim Cook (left) with Jony Ive
Tim Cook (left) with Jony Ive

Better is in the eye of the beholder

One example cited for this is how Apple has now included a HDMI port on the new MacBook Pro. It's because, finally, the artists have been replaced by engineers who know what users really need.

Except if that were the case, those engineers would've insisted on HDMI 2.1 instead of the not-current HDMI 2.0 we've got.

And if it were that Ive ignored users but Apple now listens to them, then the high-end MacBook Pro wouldn't have a mid-line SD card reader.

Those particular generations of technology picked and installed are peculiar choices to make, and not ones that would drive an aesthetics-obsessed designer. They are both performative ports — they are technologies found on $200 Chromebooks, rather than what you'd expect to find on a $2500 premium laptop.

Then, too, it's true that the 24-inch iMac got a redesign after Ive left the building, but we do believe he was involved in it. Plus, of course, it is an iMac of many different colors.

There is no practical need for any more than one color, and there is a cost in just the complexity of managing multiple SKUs.

So Apple hasn't been taken over by practical people who know to listen to what we want. It remains focused entirely on making products that people will buy.

That does mean making engineering improvements, but it really means making design choices that appeal, that work. So no, Apple did not introduce flat edges to the iPhone 12 because Jony Ive wasn't there to stop it.

Certainly, the flat edge does change the feel of, and the grip on, the phone, and presumably it does make the internal engineering easier.

But Apple did exactly this, precisely this, with the iPhone 4, during Jony Ive's time. And then kept that design with the iPhone 5. And, in all likelihood the road map to the iPhone 12 enclosure with its flat sides was laid out two years ago or more, when Ive was still actively working inside Apple's walls.

The change from rounded to flat edges is more likely to be cyclical than revolutionary. It's more likely that Apple is working to make each iPhone be distinctively different to the one before for marketing reasons, than it is that there's been some flat-edge coup in Apple Park. After all, with a new external design, the new iPhone in the hands of a passer-by or friend is easier to spot.

Apple isn't trying to be first

Apple plays the long game and if it can now afford to do that, still it has always looked far ahead and made moves intended to pay off later. This is why it's first to commercially exploit and then drop technologies like CD-ROM, and the first to adopt new technologies like Wi-Fi.

But it doesn't do any of that in order to be first. Apple does not try to be first, it tries to come in late and beat everyone else with a design that has been thoroughly and properly considered.

Steve Jobs (right) with Jony Ive
Steve Jobs (right) with Jony Ive

Which takes us back to that AR headset.

Apple isn't trying to make the next great AR/VR headset, it is trying to make an AR system that absolutely everyone will use. Call that Apple working to enhance technology for all of us, or call it Apple pursuing a bigger market, but that is its aim.

So yes, Ive argued against a two-device system that would be technologically superior to a lower-power, lower-weight single one. He was right.

And Apple is going to continue working that way. Apple is different without Jobs, and it is different without Ive. That is all that can be said as a blanket assessment of the impact that the absence of the men have made.