Sir Jonathan Ive and a “Renewed” Commitment to Apple Design

December 12th, 2017

Funny how some Apple critics are so often proved wrong.

Take the claim that, when Sir Jonathan Ive became Apple’s Chief Design Officer in 2015, it was the first step on the road to leaving the company. Maybe he’d just gather up his family and return to the UK, or perhaps find another gig. In the meantime, other Apple executives reportedly took the lead in product design.

Ive allegedly focused most of his efforts on finishing up the new Apple “spaceship” campus said, in part, to represent a memorial to the memory of Steve Jobs.

In 2016, Apple delivered fewer new products than usual. The iPhone 7 was regarded as, at best, a subpar upgrade, although it did fairly well in sales. Macs were virtually ignored until the end of the year, except for a minor speed bump upgrade for the MacBook.

The long-awaited MacBook Pro refresh was controversial. It was thinner, lighter, and the changes weren’t believed to represent a commitment to building a professional notebook computer. It was more about needless fluff, and don’t forget the Touch Bar. And what about such neglected products as the Mac mini and the Mac Pro?

Were both on the chopping block?

So what role did Ive play in those designs anyway? If his attention was focused elsewhere, did he at least spend a reasonable amount of time with the new product prototypes before approving them? Did he take advantage of that authority, beyond recording marketing videos to extol the new products?

What was really going on at Apple? Had the company lost its way? Could it even survive without Ive working hands-on to make sure all designs past muster?

Despite the skepticism, there was reportedly high demand for the new MacBook Pros, with sales results showing slight increases. So did Apple nail the design, or were customers overanxious because they’d waited so long for a new model? But why would they pay several hundred dollars extra for an inferior product?

2017 started off quietly, until Apple summoned tech journalists to participate in a roundtable discussion with Apple executives. In a sense, it was mea culpa time, as Apple admitted it goofed with the Mac Pro design. An all-new modular version was being developed, but without a promised ship date; well, maybe hint that it might arrive in 2018. A new iMac would incorporate pro features. Marketing VP Philip Schiller said a nice thing or two about the Mac mini, but reminded his audience that it wasn’t the focus of that session.

After rumors arose over a bunch of Mac updates for the WWDC, Apple confirmed them and then some, releasing new versions of the MacBook, MacBook Pro and iMac. The latter two were fairly significant in terms of performance boosts. A matter of catching up?

The high-end iMac wasn’t just a few models with faster parts. It was a whole new model, dubbed iMac Pro, with darker colors, and a revised thermal design to accommodate professional parts, including an 18-core Intel Xeon processor. Prices start at $4,999, and it will soar to several times that if you customize the unit with all the available options. According to Apple, it will be available to order on December 14th.

The Home Pod, more speaker than a “smart” gadget, is delayed until 2018. The Mac Pro is still forthcoming, and when Tim Cook said nice things about the Mac mini, it seemed to be a reasonable assurance that a new model will probably arrive next year.

Loads of new stuff was introduced at the September iPhone event. In addition to a traditional iPhone upgrade dubbed iPhone 8, the long-rumored 10th anniversary version, the iPhone X, arrived with the promise of delivery in early November. Despite predictions that it would be back ordered for months, production problems were quickly resolved, and you can order now one in the U.S. and wait no more than two to four days to receive one. Or visit your nearest Apple Store and stand a decent chance of finding the one you want.

Now that the new Apple campus is open, it is reported that Ive is back running the design team. While the critics point to a bunch of missteps over the past couple of years, you also have to compare Apple’s results with other companies.

Most all new Apple gear ships with a hardware or software defect of some sort. The iPhone X does appear to be a winner for the most part. Consumer Reports claims it’s not quite as tough as it should be, though you have to expect at least some damage after 50-100 drops to a hard surface. The Samsung Galaxy S8 doesn’t seem to fare much better. But watch Apple find ways to make the 2018 version stronger.

It’s easy to suggest that the lack of new products in 2016, and some controversial design choices, were all about Ive ceding responsibilities. But if he signed off on designs that others created, it’s still his fault. Besides, if a new product came across his desk that doesn’t meet his standards, don’t you think he’d send it back with recommendations (or demands) for change?

Despite all the speculation, it’s really hard to know what really happened behind the scenes when Ive’s focus was more on the campus than the next Mac or iPhone. Maybe after someone leaves Apple, there will be a tell-all. Or maybe things worked out pretty much the way they would have worked out anyway regardless of how many hours Ive really devoted to designing new gear.

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