Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products

Published on March 30, 2020

“Jony had a special status. He would come by our house, and our families became close. Steve is never intentionally wounding to him. Most people in Steve’s life are replaceable. But not Jony.”

— Laurene Powell Jobs

Steve Jobs walked onto the stage on the morning of July 9, 1997, unshaven, and wearing shorts and sneakers. Gilbert Amelio had just announced his departure as CEO of Apple moments earlier and Jobs was making his triumphant return to the company he had co-founded more than two decades earlier. He opened by asking the assembled group a rhetorical question:

“What’s wrong with this place?”

“It’s products. The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!”

Jony Ive was sitting in the audience and wanted to quit and return to England with his family. At that point, he had worked for Apple for nearly five years and had recently been promoted to lead the design group. However, he was disillusioned by Amelio’s lack of appreciation for design. His group was being asked to perform “skin jobs” where the designers would simply suggest what a product would look like from the outside and then engineers would make it as cheap as possible.

However, there was something about the way Jobs spoke about Apple that caused Ive to reconsider leaving. Jobs spoke about how Apple needed to return to its roots and focus on making great products rather than just making money. To a creative genius, working under the Amelio regime had been demoralizing. Jobs, famous for his “reality distortion field”, clearly inspired Ive at a point where he was extremely discouraged. He decided to stay.

Steve Jobs liked to talk about the concept of serendipity which refers to the magic that can result from chance encounters or events. According to Leander Kahney’s book, Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, Jobs nearly overlooked the existence of Ive’s design studio, which was housed away from the main Apple campus, and began a search for an outside designer shortly after he returned. Had Jobs done that, it would have amounted to the opposite of serendipity – a historic error of immense proportions. But Ive quickly sensed the danger of being overlooked and began to market his team’s capabilities within Apple. Jobs eventually took a tour of the design studio and was “bowled over by the creativity and rigor he saw”. According to Ive, he and Jobs saw eye to eye immediately. Jobs became “almost a fixture” at the design studio, dropping by the studio at the end of the day. Ive was a brilliant designer but an inexperienced manager. Jobs was not a designer but had a vision for the company. In combination, they made history.

The great collaboration between Jobs and Ive began during a dark period in Apple’s history. After a number of years of strong profitability at Apple, the release of Microsoft’s Window 95 operating system flooded the market with cheap computers that had a graphical user interface similar to what Apple had been offering for years. Many consumers were no longer willing to pay a premium price for Apple products. By the first quarter of 1996, the year that Ive became head of the design group, Apple was posting losses and laying off thousands of workers. By the time Jobs returned to Apple in mid-1997, Apple had lost $1.6 billion and market share had dropped from 10 percent to 3 percent. There were serious doubts about the company’s ability to survive.

Jobs set out to dramatically simplify an overly complex product line and focused on introducing consumer and professional versions of desktop and portable computers. Jobs and Ive saw eye-to-eye when it came to the role of customer feedback in general. Ive had the following to say regarding the design of the iBook which was the consumer oriented laptop product:

“We don’t do focus groups — that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.”

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, p. 146.

The genius of Apple at the turn of the century was that they excelled at giving customers what they did not yet know that they wanted. Laptops tended to be utilitarian devices without much panache — all function with little thought for form. Both Jobs and Ive had long cared deeply about product aesthetics, believing that the smallest of details could make or break a user’s perception of a product. For example, the iBook was designed to encourage users to handle it with its curved and rubberized surfaces. The iBook was also unique in “awakening” when the lid was lifted, but this required much effort designing a special latch that customers would never see.

Of course, the products that propelled Apple to a trillion dollar valuation two decades later were not desktop or laptop computers but portable electronic devices. This started with Apple’s entry into music with the iPod in 2001. The iPod took off in 2003 when the device and iTunes ecosystem were made compatible with the Windows operating system. Apple sold 40 million iPods in 2005 but it was becoming obvious that mobile phones would eventually offer music functionality as a feature. Apple needed to build a phone.

Although Ive’s team was not involved in the early R&D for the iPod, the team was heavily involved in the iPhone’s design from inception. Kahney highlights Apple’s extreme secrecy during this “bet the company” project. While Ive was aware of the development of the operating system and was in constant communication with Jobs, his design team worked on the design of the iPhone without ever seeing the operating system. Similarly, the software team built the operating system without seeing the early prototypes of the product. Kahney’s access to members of Ive’s team make the narrative a compelling look into the internal workings of an ultra-secretive organization.

Kahney’s book was published in 2013, two years after the death of Jobs and while Ive was still working at Apple. Throughout the later chapters of the book, the reader cannot help but view Ive as the logical successor to Jobs. In fact, Jobs himself stated that no one at Apple had more operational power than Ive:

“The difference that Jony has made, not only at Apple but in the world, is huge. He is a wickedly intelligent person in all ways. He understands business concepts, marketing concepts. He picks stuff up just like that, click. He understands what we do at our core better than anyone. If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony. Jony and I think up most of the products together and then pull others in and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ He gets the big picture as well as the most infinitesimal details about each product. And he understands that Apple is a product company. He’s not just a designer. That’s why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.”

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, p. 342

One might ask why Jobs did not designate Ive as his successor as CEO instead of Tim Cook. Cook was hired by Jobs in 1998 to run Apple’s supply chain and was instrumental in making the supply chain and manufacturing operations more efficient over the years. If Ive was the creative genius enabling Jobs’s vision to become reality, Cook was the man who made the “trains run on time”. In retrospect, and perhaps even at the time, it seems clear that Jobs, Cook, and Ive were the key people driving forward Apple’s evolution in the 2000s which set the stage for the company’s continued meteoric rise in the 2010s.

Jobs chose to designate Cook as his successor as CEO, no doubt due to his great respect for Cook’s operational skills. After Jobs passed away in 2011, Ive remained at Apple for nearly eight more years before resigning to create his own design firm in mid 2019. After reading Kahney’s book, it is impossible to not view Ive’s departure as a major blow for Apple. Readers who are interested in the evolution of Apple over the past two decades will not be disappointed with Kahney’s book. Ive’s involvement is also described in detail by Walter Isaacson in his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.

Consumer electronics is a highly competitive industry subject to the shifting tastes and preferences of customers. It is difficult to know what the industry will look like ten years into the future, yet a significant chunk of Apple’s market cap is implicitly discounting strong cash flows decades into the future that are expected to come from products that we may not even know we need yet. Tim Cook’s operational expertise will no doubt serve Apple well in the years to come. For Apple shareholders, it is unfortunate that Jony Ive will not be along for the ride as well.

Disclosure: Individuals associated with The Rational Walk LLC own shares of Berkshire Hathaway. As of December 31, 2019, Apple was Berkshire Hathaway’s largest stock investment.

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products
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