What does Apple’s executive shakeup mean for future products?

What does Apple executive shakeup mean for future products
While most of the tech world was busy watching the U.S. eastern seaboard get slammed by Hurricane Sandy on Tuesday, Apple issued a terse statement outlining changes in its executive leadership. The biggest points? Scott Forstall, the head of Apple’s iOS development efforts, is being shown the door; he’ll leave the company next year, and will serve as an “adviser” in the interim. Apple also jettisoned recently-hired retail chief John Browett after a series of missteps including layoffs at Apple’s retail stores. Apple CEO Tim Cook will handle Apple’s retail operations until they find a new chief.

However, Apple’s shakeup is about more than shifting a couple of chairs around the table: It also implies a great deal about Apple’s strategy going forward, and how Apple believes it needs to continue to develop its products.

Who’s Scott Forstall?

Scott Forstall

For the last few years, Scott Forstall has been a bit of a celebrity in Cupertino. As Apple’s senior vice president of iOS development, Forstall directly oversaw the creation, development, and all-important style of the software that drives Apple’s iPhone and iPad businesses. However, Forstall had been with Apple a long time. He was originally an employee of NeXT, the computer company Steve Jobs founded after being booted out of Apple in the 1980s, and forged a relationship with Jobs there. Forstall became an Apple employee in 1997 after Apple acquired NeXT.

Once at Apple, NeXT’s Openstep software became the basis for Mac OS X — and later a foundation of iOS. Forstall helped pioneer Mac OS X’s luminescent, lozenge-filled Aqua interface under former Chief Software Technology Officer Avie Tevanian — another Jobs colleague who came along with the NeXT acquisition. When Tevanian left Apple in 2006, Forstall took over the reins of Mac OS X. At the same time, he oversaw development of software for the original iPhone operating system, what we know today as iOS. Forstall became a public face of Apple, alongside the likes of Phil Schiller and Jonathan Ive, presenting iOS at Apple’s product announcements and WWDC conference. As iOS became the lion’s share of Apple’s business, Forstall’s stature increased. As Jobs’ protégé, Forstall increasingly filled the role of carrying through on Jobs’ vision for Apple’s products. And as Steve Jobs’ health declined, speculation began to mount about whether Forstall might one day be in line for Apple’s CEO chair.

But within Apple’s inner circle, doubts spiraled around Forstall’s future. Like Jobs himself, Forstall was well known for often being antagonistic and divisive, and developed a reputation as being difficult to work with. Apple design chief Jonathan Ive reputedly refused to be in the same room with him, and the cancelled retirement of Apple hardware chief Bob Mansfield is also widely believed to be partially connected to butting heads with Forstall. Sources within Apple also indicate Forstall had abrasive relationships with online services head Eddy Cue.

Why now?

Apple Maps fallout

Being mercurial is hardly a crime at Apple. After all, Steve Jobs famously alienated people throughout his company and throughout multiple industries during his career, and managed to be rewarded with a near cult-like following. Forstall’s abrasiveness wasn’t new, either. It has been on ample display for nearly two decades. So what changed?

There seem to be three primary factors in Forstall’s ouster. The first is that, with Steve Jobs’ death, Forstall lost his benefactor. Without Jobs’ aegis, Forstall’s difficult relationships within Apple no doubt became increasingly problematic, and may have particularly clashed with CEO Tim Cook’s by-the-numbers, efficiency-driven style.

Another factor may have been Siri. While tech companies routinely roll out beta services to consumers and shrug off reports of problems and difficulty, it’s nearly unprecedented for Apple to roll out a service like its voice assistant Siri, call it beta, and still have the product in beta over a year later. To be sure, Siri is a very complex endeavor, but it’s still beta, and it was on Forstall’s desk.

The nail in the coffin may have been Apple’s launch of Maps, replacing Google Maps in iOS 6. The new app has been received with everything from disappointment to derision. Launching a global mapping product is no small task, and Apple’s Maps does offer reasonable coverage for many areas. However, compared to mature products like Google Maps, Apple’s offering has a long way to go, leading Apple to issue a very unusual public apology for the quality of iOS Maps, even going so far as to recommend competitors in the App Store.

It wasn’t a secret within Apple that iOS Maps wouldn’t fully stand up to Google Maps on launch. iOS 6 developers had been warning Apple about it for months. However, Forstall’s reported refusal to sign Apple’s public apology over Maps may have been the last straw. It’s understandable not feeling a need to apologize for building a global mapping service from the ground up; however, it’s another thing to come across to customers as arrogant and willfully ignorant of shortcomings.

Jonathan Ive’s expanded role

Jonathan Ive

Jonathan Ive is literally Apple’s knight — he can insist on “Sir Jony” if he likes. Ive is famously the head of Apple’s industrial design, having been plucked out of a room by Steve Jobs himself when he recognized someone with a similar sensibility and deep attention to detail. Ive’s designs have become iconic around the world, from the iMac to the iPod, MacBook Air, iPhone and iPad.

Now, in addition to industrial design, Ive will be in charge of human interface across Apple’s entire range of products. That doesn’t just include the hardware design of devices; it will include onscreen interfaces too. In some ways, this makes sense: Apple’s most-successful products are utterly centered around touch, and Ive has demonstrated a deep understanding of human mechanics, motion, and perception in sculpting metal, glass and plastic. There’s no doubt he can offer significant leadership on interface development for key Apple products. However, only time will tell whether that success in industrial design can entirely translate to the software realm.

Ive will essentially take over a portion of Scott Forstall’s former responsibilities. Going forward, we can expect to see Ive’s bold, minimalist design aesthetic move from Apple’s hardware to Apple’s screens.

Perhaps as importantly, Ive is a well-liked figure who Apple can put at front and center for this transition. Where Forstall generated more than a little drama, Ive enjoys near-universal respect.

Eddy, Bob, Craig…and Phil

Apple A6

Apple’s executive shuffle isn’t limited just to Forstall and Browett being shown out. The core of Apple’s leadership is also shifting. In addition to overseeing iTunes, Apple’s App Store, and Apple’s iCloud services, Eddy Cue will also be taking over Apple’s Siri and Maps operations. Cue has been with Apple for more than two decades, starting near the bottom of the food chain and working his way up the ladder and propelling iTunes to the top music retailer. When Apple botched the launch of MobileMe (now succeeded by iCloud), Eddy Cue was the man sent in to fix things fast, and — known as a taskmaster — he’s operated Apple’s online services with starling efficiency. iTunes, the App Store, and iCloud are very complex operations that rarely hiccup. Now Cue will have to bring that operational model to Siri and Maps, two of Apple’s highest-profile — and most-hobbled — online services.

Tucked away in Apple’s announcement is also the news that Bob Mansfield will run a new technologies group that “combines all of Apple’s wireless teams.” Mansfield was VP of hardware engineering before he announced his since-retracted retirement. He was to have been working on “future products.” Putting Mansfield in charge of all wireless technology not only signals that Apple plans to be a major player in mobile — the iPhone 5’s broad LTE support being one example — but also signals that Apple plans to continue to control its own destiny. Don’t forget: Apple designs its own mobile processors, is deep into developing flash memory for its devices, and isn’t afraid to make its own hardware if it can’t source components that meet its design goals. Mansfield’s new group explicitly includes Apple’s semiconductor teams.

What about Forstall’s other jobs? Both Apple’s OS X and iOS operating systems will now be under the supervision of Craig Federighi. Federighi is another executive who came to Apple from NeXT, where he was in charge of the Enterprise Objects Framework. Federighi was in charge of the OS X software engineering group, and took over the whole OS X enchilada when Bertrand Serlet retired in in 2011. Federighi has been well-regarded by OS X engineers and developers over the years, and – perhaps significantly – is not known for ruffling feathers.

And what about Phil Schiller? Although Forstall was likely never a serious contender for Apple’s top seat, Apple’s long-time Senior VP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller is the most likely successor to Tim Cook, when that day comes. It’s probably no accident the only two Apple execs to appear at this month’s rollout of the iPad mini were Schiller and Cook.

Looking forward

What to these changes mean for Apple products?

ical skeuomorphic apple design

Skeuomorphism — Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall were Apple’s primary advocates for skeuomorphism in both iOS and Mac OS X, where elements of the interface emulate physical objects but don’t generally have any functional purpose. Examples include the linen backgrounds in iOS and OS X, the faux-leather in Apple’s Calendar app (reportedly modeled on the leather in Steve Jobs’ jet), and the tacky lacquered wood and felt graphics in Game Center. Jobs and Forstall felt skeuomorphism added depth and richness to interfaces; others within Apple (including Jonathan Ive) argued against it as extraneous noise and clutter. With Jobs and now Forstall done — and Ive in charge of interface — expect skeuomorphism to decline quickly in both iOS and OS X. Similarly, with Ive in charge of interface, expect more things to disappear: Ive’s design tenure at Apple has been characterized by taking away anything that’s not essential to a device’s or feature’s purpose. That doesn’t mean devices will lose functionality, but rather that the visual and design clutter that represents that functionality on screen (and on devices) will increasingly vanish, to manifest only when needed.

Tighter hardware integration — Apple’s products have always been distinguished by tight integration between hardware and software. With Bob Mansfield now heading up all wireless technology and semiconductor efforts – and that includes processors – expect Apple to focus even more sharply on designing products integrated from the ground up. Where many other device manufacturers rely on off-the-shelf parts and components from other makers and hope to assemble them as appealingly (and as cheaply) as possible, Apple not only wants to control its own destiny by controlling its supply chain, but by creating parts, processors, and components that simply aren’t available to its competitors.

More enterprise? — An interesting aspect of putting Craig Federighi in charge of both iOS and OS X might be Apple paying more attention to corporations and enterprise – markets Apple has largely ignored throughout its history. Some of Federighi’s expertise lies in enterprise-sized systems, like the WebObjects software that powers Apple’s online store and iTunes. As Tim Cook noted at the announcement event for the iPad mini, nearly every company on the Fortune 500 is either deploying or testing the iPad for their businesses – something Apple thinks will only increase with the more-portable iPad mini. Putting Federighi at the helm of iOS brings enterprise-scale expertise to iOS – which Apple may get very serious about iPad adoption in corporations, government, and education.

Will it work?

It’s too early to tell whether Apple’s executive shakeups will be successful. Certainly Apple does not want to repeat the embarrassment and ridicule that accompanied the launches of Siri and (particularly) Maps. However, it’s also not clear Apple has the luxury of continuing to refine products in-house until they’re absolutely ready to ship. Apple may have revolutionized the smartphone market and essentially invented the tablet market, but it’s far from alone in those spaces now. If Apple can’t continue to offer compelling reasons why its products are a better buy than (often cheaper) competitors, it will eventually lose its leadership positions. That does mean doubling down on hardware and cloud-related services, but it also means being able to pull off things like Siri (and Maps) right the first time. So far, no tech company on earth has done that.

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