Brief Thoughts and Questions On Apple’s Changes

It’s unclear whether today’s news of a major shake-up at Apple will reveal its actual effects a few months from now, many months from now, or at next year’s new product announcements in the Fall. I’d say WWDC would be a good stage to introduce “the new Apple”.

Rumors of internal struggles between the “political” Scott Forstall have been floating around for quite some time, and we just don’t know whether today’s press release was just that – a press release – or the result of more internal fights. We don’t know for how long this move has been in the works. But I’ll point out the precise timing of the announcement: it comes after the release of iOS 6, the iPhone 5, new iPod products, new Macs, the iPad mini, and an earnings call. It allows Apple to formally mention the efforts of a new executive line-up at a record-setting (per the company’s own guidance) holiday quarter. Coincidentally, as the US market is closing tomorrow due to Sandy, it gives Apple (and analysts and investors) an extra day to properly digest the news. I also guess this explains why Forstall didn’t give a demo at the iPad mini event. He’s being pushed out; I’m curious about timing.

That said, I have some questions. Think of the following list as a collection of thoughts following Apple PR’s announcement; I believe this is, for many reasons, one of the biggest changes to happen at Apple since the release of the original iPhone. It’s a major milestone for where the company is going from here.

As Gruber points out, Forstall has been around for a long time. We shouldn’t demonize the figure now that he’s leaving Apple – iOS has been wildly successful thanks to Forstall and the choices he and his team made. We don’t know on what terms Forstall is leaving. MG Siegler notes he will stay on as an “advisor” – just like Tony Fadell did years ago. Will Forstall eventually go on to found his own company? Or will competitors try to lure him?

There’s no question Ive’s design taste has become one of Apple’s distinctive traits. After all, Apple is, and will likely remain in the foreseeabe future, a hardware company. Based on the reactions I’m seeing on Twitter, people seem to be happy with the choice of Ive overlooking interface aspects of iOS. But we shouldn’t confuse this move with heading the iOS division: that’s up to Federighi now – the man who’s been given more and more stage time since the Back to the Mac event in October 2010. Federighi played a great role in the release of Mountain Lion, praised by many as “what Lion should have been”; note how Mountain Lion truly focused on bringing several more features of iOS “back to the Mac”, perhaps even more than Lion.

“Bringing together the OS teams”. That’s how Apple describes the decision to give Federighi the reins of both iOS and OS X. Is it so absurd to start thinking about a single OS developed for all devices, with similar features that, however, account for the differences between mobile and desktop? We’ve seen how this can work with Notification Center, Messages, or the App Store. It can get better. Will Federighi lead the transition towards “making it easier” to deliver features and “technology” to both platforms? There’s a lot to read between the lines here.

Ive, Mansfield, Cue, and Federighi are now the four key executives at Apple.

In retrospective, John Gruber’s account of the private presentation he received for Mountain Lion offers a lot of points for analysis:

The recurring theme: Apple is fighting against cruft — inconsistencies and oddities that have accumulated over the years, which made sense at one point but no longer — like managing to-dos in iCal (because CalDAV was being used to sync them to a server) or notes in Mail (because IMAP was the syncing back-end). The changes and additions in Mountain Lion are in a consistent vein: making things simpler and more obvious, closer to how things should be rather than simply how they always have been.

Bob Mansfield remaining at Apple (for two years) to lead a dedicated Technologies division is big news. According to Apple, the division will combine teams from the wireless and semiconductor teams.

We shouldn’t overlook the figure of Eddy Cue. He’s gone from the “guy that talks about iTunes at Apple events” to the man in charge of iTunes Store, iCloud, Siri and Maps. iCloud alone gave Cue a higher profile in terms of public reception, but the combination of iCloud and Siri under a single leadership is huge: it means the same group is handling all of Apple’s online services and ecosystem. Eddy Cue is running the platform for the next decade. He’s also directly after Tim Cook in the Leadership page (although, to be fair, I’m reminded that’s really just alphabetical order. Still, he deserves the spot).

Browett is leaving Apple. But why hire him in the first place? He didn’t even get to go through a single holiday season.

Did the Board have a say in this? Considering rumors about Forstall’s “particular” behavior that have been going on for a year now, did any member of the Board raise any sort of concern with the CEO? Or was this entirely Cook’s decision when faced with a tough choice? Or, maybe, Forstall chose to leave? I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure.

Jony Ive will provide “leadership” and “direction” for the Human Interface group within the company. This doesn’t mean Ive will be the one creating pixels behind the scenes. The way I see it, Ive has been chosen as someone who can guide – provide the general direction for where things should be heading. So while Ive won’t sit behind a desk merging layers in Photoshop, he will play the role of a director, instructing people on the “look and feel” of a product. And, in my opinion, that’s the most difficult role to play in a company like Apple. It means having to create both the form and the function. “How it looks” and “how it works”. It’s no easy task, but that’s why Cook picked Ive.

Apple is still pursuing one goal for its products: an interplay of hardware and software. But more importantly, I think today’s announcements prove Apple is not afraid of changing.

In a way, today Apple “pulled an iPod mini” on itself: it replaced several parts of a well-oiled and insanely successful machine to lay the groundwork for something better.

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