It’s time to rewrite Apple history — with more Jony Ive

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It's time for Jony Ive to get the credit he deserves. Photo: Portfolio/Penguin

People are calling The New Yorker profile of Jony Ive the most important thing written about Apple in quite a while, and I’d have to concur.

Not only is it full of fascinating details, it puts Ive at the center of Apple, where he belongs. As the piece’s author, Ian Parker, writes: “More than ever, Ive is the company.”

This is something that’s been true for a couple decades, but still isn’t apparent to most people — even veteran Apple watchers. Such is the company’s secrecy, and the tendency of the public to equate everything Apple does with Steve Jobs, that the true story has yet to be told. Ive has not gotten the credit he deserves.

As I tried to make clear in the title of my most recent book, Apple’s senior vice president of design is the genius behind the company’s greatest products. But whereas my book was unofficial, Parker was given unprecedented access to Ive and his studio. The resulting profile begins to peel back the curtain. It’s a long-overdue telling of Apple’s history that places new emphasis on Ive’s crucial contributions.

In the New Yorker profile, Ive complains about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs and the many inaccuracies it contains. His regard for the book “couldn’t be any lower,” Ive says.

But the inaccuracies are not the book’s biggest failing: It’s how little insight Isaacson provides into the inner workings of Apple. Steve Jobs reveals little about how Apple actually operates. The development of the iPhone, for example, was a three-year effort with countless problems and restarts, but it’s covered in a single chapter and told from Jobs’ point of view. Jobs was central to the iPhone, of course, but more so were the designers in Ive’s studio, whose story wasn’t covered in Isaacson’s book.

The New Yorker profile begins to detail how Ive is at the heart of what Apple does. It details how the upcoming Apple Watch is Jony’s baby. And it offers a tiny clue about Apple’s future plans for the wearable, which will ultimately become a health-monitoring platform that sends alerts to parents when their children start to get sick.

The profile details how Ive is involved in everything, from the company’s renowned hardware and software to the design of the spaceship campus in Cupertino and even a yet-to-be-unveiled redesign of Apple’s retail stores for selling the Watch.

Ive’s design studio is Apple’s idea factory, the primary source of most of its new products. It’s the part of the company that creates new products. But more than that, it fundamentally figures out not just how the products will work, but how they will be made, sold and even how they will be serviced, repaired and recycled.

As mentioned in the New Yorker article, design used to be one step in a chain of events, but at Apple, it’s central to everything the company does. Ive’s predecessor at Apple, Robert Brunner, describes it like this:

Typically, Robert Brunner explained, design had been “a vertical stripe in the chain of events” in a product’s delivery; at Apple, it became “a long horizontal stripe, where design is part of every conversation.”

This wasn’t apparent even to me before I wrote Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products. I have followed Apple closely for 20 years, and had some idea about Ive’s importance, but until I dove into the mammoth research project that resulted in my book, it wasn’t clear how central he and the studio had become.

The design studio is soup-to-nuts — and that’s why Ive dissed Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. Isaacson allowed Jobs to take most of the credit for Apple’s work without digging further, leaving a central truth untold: that Ive’s studio and the 19 designers who work there are the primary source of Apple’s creativity. Jobs was the facilitator and a major collaborator —- whose role absolutely should not be diminished — but his contribution was not the only one.

And yet Jobs’ voice is essentially the only one anybody has heard. Ive’s side of the story remains to be told.

The big problem facing Ive and Apple about assigning the designer his proper place in history is getting his version of events out there. And because of Apple’s incredibly restrictive secrecy policies, it’s very hard to do.

The New Yorker piece is a good first attempt at an official version that validates Ive’s critical role at Apple, which most people still haven’t grasped.