Jony Ive’s designs made Apple dominant. His departure shows the company is losing its lustre

As hardware takes a backseat and design becomes less important, can the company keep up?

Jony Ive on Apple design

From foundation to brink of bankruptcy and trillion-dollar market capitalisation, a potted history of Apple serves not only as a useful guide to market dynamics, but also teaches us a thing or two about behavioural economics, consumer psychology and the sustainability of the trends shaping the world we live in.

The three specific lessons the behemoth has reminded us of this week are cliched but true: first, don’t put all your eggs in one basket; second, it’s what’s on the inside that counts; and finally, all good things must, indeed, come to an end.

On Thursday, Jonathan “Jony” Ive – Chingford’s greatest export to Silicon Valley – announced that he was leaving Apple after almost three decades to start his own company.

Though his name may not enjoy the same folkloric connotations as Steve Jobs or Tim Cook, it’s no exaggeration that Apple simply wouldn’t exist as we know it if Ive hadn’t, in 1992, swapped the drab climes of London and his Hoxton Square office at a start-up called Tangerine for the Californian sizzle and the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

He’s credited with designing the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad and MacBook. The success of his labour secured him long-term demi-god status across the famously fickle global tech community.

In 2013, he received a knighthood from the Queen for services to design and enterprise, and he’s thought to hold more than 5,000 patents. Last year he was awarded a Professor Hawking fellowship at Cambridge and his humble side-hustle is the chancellorship of London’s Royal College of Art. The Sunday Times estimates his net worth to be £192m.

In large part thanks to Ive, several Apple products have achieved the kind of cult status that most other technology and consumer goods companies wouldn’t even dare dream of for one item. If a symbol existed to sum up the young metropolitan professional – style-conscious and well-travelled, liberal and connected, curious and ambitious – the iPhone would be it.

In October 2018, the 12th generation of the device was launched with the slogan, “Brilliant. In every way.” This motto could have also been describing Apple’s nuanced ability to remain relevant throughout the ages – to walk the tightrope of risk and innovation in a way that others have hitherto failed.

But that brilliance is waning and Ive’s departure, while not exactly a key cause, might be an indicator of its malaise.

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I’m far from alone in pointing out that Apple’s prosperity has become inextricably linked to the success of its flagship product, the iPhone. As consumer trends shift, that’s emerging to be a serious problem.

Smartphone sales across the world have stopped growing and yet more than half of Apple’s revenue comes directly from iPhone sales. But the likelihood that customers buy Apple apps or accessories is obviously dependent on whether they have an iPhone in the first place, so that statistic doesn’t actually sum up the true extent of Apple’s dependence on the phone: the number of eggs it has in one basket.

That’s the first of the company’s problems, but there’s another that could prove far more systemic, and this is where the second lesson comes in.

The world of tech has demoted the importance of aesthetics. The future of digital is not about sublime symmetry, perfect dimensions and glossy curvatures in just the right places, but about the very things we cannot see.

The industry is migrating from being hardware-centric to software-obsessed and that means Ive, a craftsman of the beautiful, and Apple, an expert in design, while unlikely to fade away anytime soon, are losing their lustre.

Tomorrow is all about smart homes and artificial intelligence. The less we see of it, the more desirable. There will always be a place in the world for those blessed with flawless taste, even in tech, but this next chapter is about the invisible process and not the gadget that can be flaunted in the front row at fashion week.

Ive’s decision to leave will no doubt deal a body blow to Apple. The share price slip in the aftermath of the news is testament to that. But it’s an inevitable development: technology is moving on and, as hardware takes a backseat, Silicon Valley’s cast of protagonists will reshuffle too. Apple’s proved a survivalist on several occasions in the past. Now it’s up to us – the consumers – to determine whether it can do so again.

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