This week, news broke that Jony Ive is leaving Apple after nearly 30 years to open his own design firm, Loveform. He’ll keep designing projects for Apple, though no doubt, to a far lesser capacity as he takes on other clients and interests as well. As Ive put it to the Financial Times, “This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.”
Is it a gentle time? For Apple and Silicon Valley at large, I’d argue it’s the most tumultuous time in a decade. Ive is leaving Apple at a critical moment in the 21st century, when, between the rise of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and a growing understanding of technological addiction, no one seems to know what’s next. Ive spent 20 years articulating a clear point of view for how people should interact with technology. But the future of technology is murkier. And it needs good design more than ever.
Apple’s own future is unclear. The company’s cash cow, iPhone sales, are down as people choose to refresh their smartphones less often, and developing markets have tighter budgets that necessitate cheaper hardware. (The sales have dipped 30% year over year.) Apple is still making roughly $60 billion a quarter in revenue, but the pressures of Wall Street necessitate constant growth on top of those already gargantuan numbers. Hence Apple announced it was getting into credit cards and touted its services business (like iCloud) at the World Wide Developers Conference this year. To compete with the amorphous innovation models of Amazon and Google, Apple needs to monetize less traditional gadgets and more cloud software.
Spreadsheets aren’t an exciting design, though. When I think about what Ive has done at Apple, he truly ushered in the modern age of electronics—twice. First by making portable electronics delightful with the iMac/iPod, then making the possibilities limitless with the iPhone.
Ive doesn’t just have great aesthetic taste; he’s also a genius of technology design. His first assignment at Apple was developing a new Newton tablet from sketch to foam form in just two weeks—which required arranging circuit boards and camping out in a hotel room in Taiwan. Around 2000, Microsoft was still trying to figure out what the heck a tablet PC could look like, building giant laptops with stylus reactive screens. Meanwhile, Ive introduced the Bondi Blue iMac (1998), a desktop with a handle on top, implying it should move with you. Then in 2001, the iPod, the perfect music player that stored all your music, but also featured a wheel interface that was fun endlessly fun. Ive brought a sense of joy to technology. And then he introduced more and more iPods, ever smaller and more evocative in color. In this time, Apple demonstrated that ergonomics, user interface, and the emotional feel of a product mattered a lot more than sheer power or productivity. Nothing has been the same since. Microsoft pivoted from tablet PCs to building Zune iPod clones.
Then 2007 brought us the iPhone. 2008 the Macbook Air. 2010 the iPad. Here, Ive and his team truly mastered the marriage of microprocessors and glass. Most influentially, Apple demonstrated that the entire product should get out of the way of the touchscreen—a UI wonder that could rebuild its buttons in milliseconds. Apple transformed computing into something flexible, tangible, and gloriously mindless.
That breakthrough cannot be overstated. Every company copied Apple’s approach. Samsung released Galaxy smartphones and tablets. Google launched the Pixel. But Apple kept mining its own breakthrough for more products. Take the Apple Watch—a whole new category of product—which was ostensibly just a tiny iPhone on your wrist.
If Apple’s design has seemed a bit boring since 2010 when the iPad debuted, that’s because Apple did such a good job of making consumer electronics both useful and beautiful. Good design is exciting when it first fixes a problem in your life. Then it just becomes something we take for granted.
Looking toward 2020, the technology industry is addressing a new zeitgeist. We’re facing a series of problems that’s even greater than, “What should a tiny computer in my pocket look like?”
We’re entering an age of AI assistants powered by opaque algorithms that assume more and more control of our lives. How can we see inside them? Social networks have connected us, but also made us feel isolated, and allowed us to be manipulated en masse. What do we do? There’s the ongoing question of augmented reality—we have the technology to float holograms in front of our eyes now, but how does that become meaningful or desirable? Every major auto manufacturer is working on self-driving cars. How is that experience both safe and exciting? A crisis-level real estate squeeze is leading developers to build smart, robotic buildings, but can they actually feel like home? And then we have the mega issues of healthcare and the environment—matters Apple readily says it cares about, but certainly hasn’t made a seismic dent in yet.
Ive is only 52 years old. No doubt, at Lovefrom, he has decades of MoMA-worthy designs in front of him. I like anyone else cannot wait to see what beautiful thing Ive creates next, unbridled by the bounds of Apple’s shareholders. Furthermore, he may still consult on any or all of these aforementioned things at Apple. Ive was almost assuredly working on at least some of this stuff during his tenure at Apple. Reportedly, Apple was developing both an AR headset and a car for years. But whatever concepts Ive and his team may have been polishing behind closed doors are still closely guarded secrets rather than an open thesis on the next 10 years of design.
Ive is leaving Apple right as technology is getting especially messy and murky, as the consequences of its entrenchment in our lives is just becoming clear. Is it a copout? Not exactly. Ive has given Apple, and so many of us consumers, decades of his life. On the other, Ive is leaving serious problems behind, which he is complicit in creating.
Most crucially, Ive is leaving Apple at a time when we recognize that the iPhone is actually like a drug that has made us more informed, but less happy. Perhaps the greatest challenge for Ive’s future could be to reconcile with Apple’s past—and the fact that his honeypot design has ushered in our privacy dystopia and turned our times with friends and family measurably less enjoyable. Because of Jony Ive’s brilliance, we spend more time looking at screens than one another. So what if Ive solved the biggest lingering problem in technology? What if his greatest achievement could one day be weaning the world off his own, irresistible creations?