iOS chief Scott Forstall out, Jony Ive to lead future Apple user interface design

“Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard.” -- Tim Cook

Disaster recovery is on everyone’s minds this week as Hurricane Sandy spends itself upon the US East Coast -- seems it was on Apple's [AAPL] mind too as CEO Tim Cook engaged in a management reshuffle designed, presumably, to sharpen the company’s focus on products not politics as it puts its best design mind in charge of the future evolution of the user interface.

Apple cans Scott Forstall

[ABOVE: Forstall out as Apple CEO takes control.]

Apple is a software company

Apple is a software company. It’s hardware may be good, but it is the software that defines the user experience. 

At best Apple is all about focus: focus on the customer; focus on the products; focus on the company. Traditionally it operates in a series of silos, independent self-regulating units concentrating on one aspect of a software or hardware system, not necessarily in full knowledge of the final outcome. 

This is the kind of volatile yet mission critical environment that needs team players, not mandarins. I suspect that’s why Cook’s tossed Apple’s powerful iOS chief, Scott Forstall, out the frying pan, reportedly because Jobs’ golden child was too proud to sign the company’s apology over the Maps affair.

Apple may be working away at its pride problem, after all.

In a sense, Forstall couldn’t sign the document. He was responsible for Apple’s Maps, and in his presentation of the system he seemed to insist it to be the best in the world, which it wasn’t.

That’s not to say Maps is all bad -- technically its pretty good. Turn-by-turn driving instructions are impressive, and the software’s choice of vector graphics make it smooth to use. 

What the technically-minded Forstall neglected to ensure was that the system was populated with enough geographical data to be useful. He also failed to warn Apple users or (presumably) the executive team that the software wasn’t quite ready. 

Signing Cook’s apology would have been an admission of error, which Forstall would inevitably have felt unable to do, as it would cast doubt on his credibility when delivering future iOS projects. He’d called Maps “fantastic”, after all.

Focus on products, not politics

This might have been acceptable while Jobs, who championed Forstall, was still around, but given rumors that the iOS chief was a political animal it’s unlikely he had enough support left from those he had been competing with to ask for their support. For example, designer Jony Ive reputedly refused to sit in meetings with Forstall unless Tim Cook was around to mediate.

The Wall Street Journal notes: 

“Mr. Forstall's departure came after mounting tension with members of Apple's executive ranks. For years, senior executives had complained that he wasn't cooperative and showed off his close relationship with Apple's late co-founder Steve Jobs. Without Mr. Jobs to mediate, tensions between Mr. Forstall and other executives built, according to the people familiar with the matter. The 43-year-old Mr. Forstall recently told people that there is no "decider" now that Mr. Jobs is gone, according to a person briefed on the conversation. Mr. Forstall also recently sent some members of Apple's iOS software team an email saying he felt the group wasn't working on enough big ideas in mobile software, according to a person briefed on the email.”

Forstall’s clearly been acting up, and has found his success to be far from rubber-clad. For all these reasons, he got canned. Not that Apple puts it as overtly as that, saying just, “Apple also announced that Scott Forstall will be leaving Apple next year and will serve as an advisor to CEO Tim Cook in the interim.”

User experiences on steroids

What’s interesting is that Jony Ive will be taking over responsibility for Human Interfaces across the company while Craig Federighi will lead both the OS X and iOS teams. 

(I’ve also heard one rumor this morning claiming Bertrand Serlet may return to the team, a not unlikely outcome given the increasing importance of cloud-based services to Apple’s device future.)

While the future unity between iOS and OS X could yield fascinating results, I’m more interested in Jony Ive’s move to take control of the user interface on Apple products.

Ive is one of the two-man team (Steve Jobs, Jony Ive) behind the iMac, a single product which helped resurrect the company in the late ’90’s. The award-winning designer’s deeply connected to the company, and his product designs are all about focus. 

You could argue that giving Ive responsibility for the user experience as well as product design gives him the opportunity to deliver incredibly refined, incredibly simple solutions -- products in which the design and the software interoperate at an incredibly subtle level, sucking users into viscerally pleasing experiences.

Ive is probably one of the most respected members of the company, and given Forstall’s many years of work to develop loyalty within his team in order to support his growing corporate political muscle, Apple needed to field this business to an executive likely to command the respect of a developer group that might have felt unhappy at the departure of their team leader.

Future focused

While it’s likely Apple’s announced changes have been expressed in such a way as to put a positive spin on what is likely to have been one of the biggest moments in the company’s internal politics for a decade, the release also suggests other big moves ahead.

“Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level. This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future,” the release explains.

Mansfield announced his retirement from the company earlier this year. He’s now been persuaded back to lead Apple’s mobile mission, which will include development of new “ambitious” semiconductors and very likely also includes development of new product families.

I continue to believe one sector in which Mansfield, Ive and the increasingly powerful Eddy Cue can stake some claim will be in solutions for the smart home. 

The departure of iPod father Tony Fadell to launch a company dedicated to such products shows the team must at least be pondering such plans. Interesting also is Apple’s decision to begin selling Wi-Fi equipped, iOS-controlled light bulbs in its retail stores -- a good example of the kind of thing you can do with slightly intelligent domestic devices. 

Add a dose of Ive’s minimalist design and the kind of power and security you get with the Unix-based iOS and OS X, and you could see the company transform once again, becoming the consumer electronics powerhouse it has inevitably been transforming itself into.

There’s been some concerns in recent weeks that Apple has no ideas to follow up the iPad and iPhone: that once these products become mature the company has no hot new product sector by which to boost its future business. 

Seeking alpha

I don’t believe that’s true for one solitary second.

Merely because some Wall Street analyst hasn’t got a clue as to what the next technological imperative will be isn’t so surprising -- these people work for banks who’ll lose money blithely while still taking bonuses, and then approach the public they’ve been profiting off for years to get a bail-out when they get it wrong. Bean counters they might be, but innovators they ain’t.

The new Technology group will be looking across the board at what kind of products Apple can deliver which exploit its existing technologies while opening up new business opportunities for the firm. 

Goods and services for the digital home would seem an inevitable progression for a company which has already prepared a chain of high profile, beautifully-designed retail stores by which to bring its future products to an enthusiastic public.

Those stores are also products. They exist to entice customers into Apple’s world view. They are profit centers, true, but they are also gateways into the company’s vision of the world. 

That former Dixon’s chief, John Browett, didn’t understand the importance of the retail segment to company identity is possibly why he got fired. He thought he was running a shop when in fact he was presiding over a tangible expression of Apple’s focus on the customer experience. 

The vision

Apple is among the first firms in the 21st Century to truly understand that a customer’s experience of a product doesn’t start when they get the thing home, it starts when they think of visiting the store to take a look at what they might buy.

What Cook appears to have done is cut out the people who don’t share the vision he has for the company moving forward. 

He doesn’t want the executive team to collapse from the inside under the weight of political infighting; he’s quite prepared to wait until things are ready to ship, but demands his fellow executives are prepared to tell him if they aren’t. There’s not space for a one-man army in his team.

This executive reshuffle is an expression of one year’s work by the CEO to identify those who can help the company move forward, to ensure focus isn’t on individual career progression, but on the main mission of the company:

Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world.

Through a few executive sacrifices, Apple should now be in position to focus on that mission and dance lightly to where the puck is going, not where it has been.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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