Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) chief design officer Jony Ive is departing the company to start an independent design firm that will work with Apple as a major client. There have been signs in recent years that Ive had been growing wary and eyeing the exit, but the news was still a bombshell for investors. Ive has assembled a world-class team of designers to carry the torch and will leave a legacy of world-changing products.
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This video was recorded on June 28, 2019.
Dylan Lewis: There has been one constant over the last two and a half decades or so at Apple when it comes to the look and feel of products and the people calling the shots. One constant has been Jony Ive. This is a name that a lot of people recognize. He's probably one of the few product designers that people actually know. He has been a staple at Apple for a long time. He is now leaving the company.
Evan Niu: Right. Apple dropped this massive bombshell last night that Chief Design Officer Jony Ive, who I think a lot of people consider one of the most, if not the most famous designer in the world, he's leaving, and he's going to start an independent design company but will retain Apple as one of its "primary clients." So, he's still going to collaborate with Apple's in-house design team that he had helped assemble over all these years. But he's starting to move out, get out the door. You really can't overstate his impact on Apple's product design over the past couple of decades, like you mentioned. Also, not just Apple, but across all consumer electronics. So many of Apple's rivals blatantly rip off his designs, and they don't even try to hide anymore. It's a fact of life now. All these other products rip off Apple shamelessly.
Lewis: You mentioned the amount of time he's been at the company, but I think it's worth emphasizing some of the different products that he's either worked on or spearhead the development and design of. Going back all the way to the translucent iMac, now they call it the iMac G3. It was the rounded plastic box with some bright color in there that came out in the late 90s and was different than every single other computer out there that was boxy. It was fun, it was playful. I remember, my dad had one when I was a kid, and I was just marveling at it. That was one of the first things that he worked on and got him on the scene at Apple.
Niu: That computer also paved the way for their whole comeback and turnaround starting in the late 90s. Yeah, that computer was hugely influential.
Lewis: And then we have the iPod, which I think was his real first breakout product. This is where I think we start to see a lot of the classic Jony Ive design stuff coming into play. You have everything super minimalist, all-white design, white earbuds. The thing that I think really separated this product too was the packaging. We are used to this very intentional packaging from Apple now, where it's almost a treat to open a new product from them in a way that isn't the case for almost any other consumer electronics company. A lot of that started with the iPod line.
Niu: Yeah, they have a whole team of literally cardboard box designers. They go through prototypes. [laughs] They care a lot about packaging, which no one else cares about.
Lewis: I think those two products alone would be enough for a lot of people to be able to hang their hat on. But then you also have the iPhone, of course. Perhaps the most successful consumer electronics device of all time. More minimalism, more round edges from their design team. You have the iPad, you have the Apple Watch. He also contributed to some of their software design efforts. And, of course, he also helped design their campus. It's incredible what a mark he has made on Apple, but also the consumer electronics space in general.
Niu: Right. He was widely known to have this deep bond with Steve Jobs. That bond is also part of why, when Steve Jobs died back in 2011, it of course was a big deal, people were worried about it, but they weren't worried about Apple's product design, because they knew that Ive was still there, taking charge on the product front, particularly because Tim Cook's self-admittedly not a product guy. So having Ive there helped help investors with that transition when Jobs died and Tim Cook took over.
Lewis: Is this something that we should have been as surprised by, Evan, as maybe we were?
Niu: I think it is still surprising. It's massive news. But at the same time, there have been clues over the past few years that he's been eyeing the exit. For example, back in 2015, when he became chief design officer, he reportedly stepped back from day-to-day management of the team, taking more of a hands-off role. This was around the same time, as you mentioned with regards to their campus, Apple started to design their new campus, Apple Park. He was focused very heavily on that project. He was working with this third-party architectural firm that they hired, putting all of his characteristic attention to detail over every little aspect. I've been to Apple Park a couple of times. I was there last year. Even the parking humps have rounded corners. They're so obsessed with rounded corners, they even put them on the parking humps!
Lewis: They can't help themselves! Once you see an aesthetic, you can't unsee it, and you want it to be everywhere. I think it's very easy to look at this departure -- it's a sort of departure; he will be consulting, and his firm will be working with Apple -- and worry a little bit about the product pipeline for Apple. So much of the narrative about this company over the last couple of years has been iterative innovation. It hasn't been anything that's been a step change from where they have been. We've seen continuations of these product lines. Except for the Apple Watch. That's been the only thing they've launched that's new. What do you make of all that?
Niu: They definitely have been stretching out these design cycles even more. They've always been able to get a lot of mileage out of each new design. But they used to maybe keep a design in place for two or three years. Now they're pushing it. For example, the current iMac has been the same design for seven years. That's a crazy long time. They obviously still sell well, but...
I think he's been also expanding his interest beyond designing computers and gadgets. He's been doing a lot of these other projects for charities and other things like that; rings; he designed an old-school Leica camera, a desk, even a Christmas tree, for some reason. So it seems like he wants to do other stuff now, which might be where this is coming from. With Apple Park, that was also a big thing that has nothing to do with product. Yeah, again, I think it's just more signs that he's maybe just tired of doing the same stuff.
Lewis: Do we know exactly what the new relationship's going to look like? I know you've done a little bit more digging on this than I have.
Niu: Not exactly. That's why it's a little confusing. It's not a traditional exit. It's not like he's just leaving. And this whole thing of, he'll still be consulting or have Apple as a client, there's some skepticism, because people think that maybe this is some PR spin trying to minimize the impact. Of course, a lot of investors and customers are worried about what's going to happen going forward. But their design pipeline is pretty long. They plan things four to five years out. It's still possible that all the products we'll see over the next few years will still have his influence on them. But it's still a little early to call. We don't know exactly what that relationship is going to look like.
At the same time, it's also worth noting that they've had some pretty high-profile design flaws in recent years. That trash-can black Mac Pro that they're phasing out now had a lot of thermal constraints that inhibited its expandability and performance, which makes it a terrible machine for professional users. But then, of course, we can't forget this infamous butterfly keyboard that people are still dealing with. Those have been around for a few years now, and Apple has not fixed them. They keep trying to fix them. It's pretty obvious there's a design flaw there. We don't know what they'll do to resolve that finally once and for all. That's been an overhang, too. There's no doubt about it, though, this is a huge loss.
Lewis: Yeah, the obsession with form can occasionally get in the way of function with Apple. Those are two high-profile examples of that happening. I mentioned the concerns that people have about the product pipeline, and what's that next killer product going to be? But we also talked about how they're expanding out software and making it such a big part of the business now. Do they need that next killer product in maybe the way that they did 10 years ago?
Niu: They're large at this point. They do need to always keep on innovating to put out new things. The iPhone business is in decline. Services is ramping up, but still so tiny compared to the rest of these businesses. They do need other things to carry the weight around here. Who knows what it'll be?
Lewis: I've seen some speculation that they are working on some augmented-reality headset or eyewear type of things. Evan, if they put something like that out, would you be a buyer?
Niu: I would be interested in it. I have to admit...of course, it all depends, particularly for something like eyewear, it's very subjective with the aesthetics of it. If he's come up with some design that's in their pipeline, I'm really curious what it looks like, if it has universal appeal like Apple Watch. Same thing, it's so personal. But Apple Watch is a hit, even though it's pretty much the same design.
Lewis: Austin Morgan, our man behind the glass, would you be a buyer of augmented-reality headgear of some sort from Apple?
Austin Morgan: I don't know. I'm not a big glasses guy. It would have to do something really, really cool for me to buy into it. I am a big Apple guy. I've got all things Apple.
Lewis: You're in the ecosystem.
Morgan: Oh, yeah, big time!
Lewis: I think that whole category has really suffered because of the stigma of Google Glass. I feel like that's such a hard hurdle that anything augmented reality is going to have to get over.
Niu: That's its legacy!