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Reading the Tea Leaves About Jonathan Ive’s New Position

It’s fun to speculate about what Apple’s corporate moves signify. And when the opinions are all over the place, guessing the truth is probably impossible except by sheer accident. It’s not that Apple will necessarily give you all the facts, although I wouldn’t necessarily say they are lying.

So we have the recent announcement that Sir Jonathan Ive is being elevated from Senior Vice President of Design, where he manages both the hardware and the software divisions, to Chief Design Officer. In the latter position, Ive will oversee everything related to design, including the stores and the new corporate campus. By parcelling out the managerial work to two of his long-time lieutenants, Richard Howarth and Alan Dye, Ive will free himself from the daily drudgery and have more time to focus on what he does best.

At least that’s what Apple is telling us.

There are different takeaways from that announcement. One is that Ive fully assumes the role of visionary, as if he wasn’t doing that already and is thus the linear descendant to Steve Jobs. Does that make him a potential CEO should Tim Cook depart? I can see where less focus on administrative chores would be helpful to his creative process, but not to taking on more management chores.

Yet another theory has it that Ive is preparing the way for his eventual departure. How so? Well, perhaps look at how Bill Gates reduced his workload at Microsoft, by taking on the role of Founder and Technology Advisor, although it’s spun as taking on more work. It’s definitely not a 9 to 5 position, but one that retains a level of authority and still gives him the freedom of not having to show up at the office each day. When Microsoft’s public moves are considered, they reflect the presence of CEO Satya Nadella as the voice of the company.

Over time, perhaps, Ive could disengage himself from most of his work at Apple while focusing more public attention on the accomplishments of Howard and Dye. The former is now Vice President of Industrial Design, the latter Vice President of User Interface Design. This would mean that both would be the design spokespeople going forward, and you’ll see fewer of those new product videos with Ive demonstrating the fine design points of a new product.

While Howarth hasn’t taken much of a public role, he is reported to be the design lead for the iPhone, and a key contributor to all Apple hardware produced in the over 20 years he’s been at Apple.

What this goes to show is that Ive was never the one-man-band. While new products may deeply reflect his vision — and once that of Steve Jobs — we’re talking about a tightly knit team of skilled designers that shepherded Apple’s products from concept to manufacturing.

But this all goes back to the mistaken theory that, when Tim Cook took over as Apple CEO, he was utterly incapable of handling the job. All he understood were numbers, supplies and inventory. How could he possibly handle the vision thing without any such background? What would Apple do without Jobs at the helm?

What was forgotten was the fact that Cook had already been running Apple, at least for limited periods, for several years after Steve Jobs took his first sick leave. One article suggests that the transition was deliberately handled this way to make people more comfortable with Cook’s presence, and to convey the impression that, despite his more limited role in the company, Jobs was still in charge and was only taking breaks to get well. A sudden changeover might have had a more negative impact.

As it was, weeks before he died, Apple made the inevitable announcement that Cook had become CEO, but it still took several years for that to sink in, and for the public to realize that he wasn’t going to wreck the company. By the same token, should Ive have retirement in his sights, it may well be that the change would be handled gradually, so as to cause as little disruption as possible. Once it was certain that his team had fully absorbed the company’s DNA and were perfectly capable of managing the design process going forward, Ive could make his official exit. Even then it could be presented as a transition to a more advisory role and thus a natural progression from his current position.

But it’s all theory. Corporate maneuvers are usually far more nuanced than one might expect from the outside. Regardless, Ive must surely not want to remain in a pressure cooker for the rest of his working life, though I can see where delegating managerial tasks to key members of his staff might give him more freedom for at least a few years.

Yes, I realize that Ive has been suggested as potential CEO material too, but if the advancement to Chief Design Officer is exactly as it appears on the surface, that’s not what he wants to do. It won’t help his creative process unless he restricts himself to tackling vision and design issues, while delegating marketing and inventory to others to handle.

Then again, perhaps the media will still be speculating about when Cook and Ive are leaving five or ten years from now as other executives continue to take on support positions.