Does he stay or go? Parsing Apple's promotion of designer Jony Ive

Apple's shown it can weather the loss of anyone

Jonny Ive

Jonny Ive speaks to members of the media during an Apple event announcing the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch in September 2014.

Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Apple's well-known designer, Jony Ive, has been promoted to the position of chief design officer, a new title in the Cupertino, Calif. company's executive suite.

But does that mean he's staying or going? And if the latter, will that affect Apple or its iconic product line?

Analysts yesterday tried to interpret the news of Ive's promotion, and the placing of day-to-day operations in the hands of two lieutenants, Alan Dye and Richard Howarth. The Telegraph first reported on Ive's title change Tuesday; on the same day, 9to5Mac.com published an internal memo from Apple CEO Tim Cook that confirmed the promotion, which will take effect July 1.

"This looks very much like a promotion," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. "It would be a strange way to push someone out the door."

Outsiders like Dawson -- and everyone else -- split into two camps: Some thought that Ive, who has expressed the desire to raise his children in his native U.K., would slide out of Apple in the next year or two, and that the promotion is a step towards that. Others, however, accepted the promotion for what it is, adding that it would free Ive from the drudgery of management and let him focus on the design of, among other things, the new Apple headquarters and its retail chain.

"I see this as a continuing evolution of his duties," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. "In his new position, he may touch many of the internal things at Apple that the public may never see."

The news of Ive's promotion, of course, was important to those who follow Apple's moves. Ive has been instrumental in the design of most if not all current Apple products, from the look of the Mac line to the overhaul of iOS's look and feel two years ago.

"His personal attentiveness to design makes a difference at and for Apple," argued Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "It's the basis of his legacy there, and why his credibility is so strong inside and outside Apple."

Although Dawson, Rubin and Moorhead all agreed that Ive's promotion and change of immediate duties mean he's staying at Apple, others argued just as strenuously that it signals he's on his way out on his own terms.

Ben Thompson, an independent analyst whose Stratechery.com has become a must-read among technology opinion makers, was certain of that. "The level of orchestration around this announcement augurs something far more significant than a changed title," Thompson wrote Tuesday in a piece he put outside the usual subscription pay wall. "In my estimation, whether Ive intends it or not -— and I think he likely does, for what it's worth -— this is the beginning of the end of his time at Apple."

"This is simply what a top-level executive leaving the world's largest corporation looks like," echoed Joe Cieplinski, the co-host of Release Notes, a podcast about iOS development, and a user experience (UX) designer. "A person such as Jony Ive can't just retire from Apple one day. He or she must transition, over the course of a year or more, so as to cushion the impact on the stock price, public perception, etc.," Cieplinski wrote on his personal blog Tuesday.

No, that's not it, countered Moorhead.

"This cements [Ive] there for the next five to 10 years," Moorhead predicted. "I imagine that they gave him a bunch of stock to lock him in."

Apple has a habit of doing just that: When Cook was promoted to CEO just weeks before Jobs' death, Apple awarded him a grant of 1 million shares (equivalent to 7 million shares after a split in 2014) that were to vest over a 10-year stretch if he stuck with the company.

If there was such a stock grant, Apple may not disclose the details until after July 1 -- in other words not until its third-quarter earnings report, which will go public in October.

Instead of a clue to Ive's departure, his promotion hints at a strategic succession plan and an attempt to keep not just the designer, but others, at the company. With the creation of the new chief design officer title, Apple has made room for movement of people like Dye, who will oversee user interface design (software), and Howarth, after July 1 the head of industrial design (hardware). The two will report to Ive.

"If people [like Dye and Howarth] think Ive will be there forever, it would be hard to keep them interested and motivated," said Moorhead. "Now, without Ive leaving Apple, the company can have people come up and be there if Jony would leave."

Ive is also one of the strongest remaining links to co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs. The Jobs-Ive partnership, according to all reports, was especially tight, and obviously productive for Apple. Although the kind of questions raised by some in 2011 when Jobs died -- concern over Apple's future -- were in hindsight unwarranted, others have raised them again on the news that Ive might be on his way out.

Nothing to see here, the analysts essentially said.

"Ive has made an incredible contribution, and the company would not be the same if he left," said Rubin. "But obviously Apple is much bigger than any individual."

Dawson agreed. "Absolutely, Apple has demonstrated that it's more than the specific individuals," Dawson said, citing Apple's growth since Jobs' passing. At the same time, he had questions. "Does Ive leaving, or when that happens, mean that they've lost all of that? Or has he passed enough along? Designers are unique. If you lose a great operations officer, you can find another great operations officer because the rules are basically the same. But design is very personal, and each is truly unique, with their own specific takes on product design."

Apple will do just fine, thank you, if or when someone as prominent as Ive departs, said Moorhead.

"From the outside, Apple has a 'hero' culture, which works when you're competing against faceless competitors like Samsung," he said. "Humanizing design is good strategy, good marketing, because once you see something you like, you want to see how they do it. Apple uses that as a competitive weapon to differentiate it from others. And you can't copy people or a culture."

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