Jony Ive, who is credited with the design of many of Apple’s greatest products, was promoted to the position of Chief Design Officer last week. The company’s announcement seemed to say that Ive would now be bringing “design thinking” to all of the company, not just its products. Some pundits said this was a graceful way to ease him out of the picture. Others said it freed him to spend more time on the “next big thing.”
Maybe he should indeed be refocusing on product design, since for me, his promotion renewed the question as to whether Apple has lost its way in the design of tech products.
Apple can still create nice feature improvements in its products, but they seem to missing the larger aims of design. Specifically, think back to Apple’s showing of the iPad 3 in 2012. Its video introduction of that product began with these words:
“We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible. When you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with.”
This is as good as it gets in describing the role of design in technology products. Yet over the last couple of years, Apple’s products have gotten mostly bigger and more obvious.
The iPhone 6 grew bigger than the iPhone 5, mostly it would seem to catch up to the competition. The iPod Nano, a useful and small device, was discontinued and replaced by a larger version.
So now, instead of seeing someone holding an Apple product like this …
people go around absurdly armed like this.
The Apple Watch is another example where Apple did anything but hide the technology. This is all the more perplexing when you look at what they could have designed, something more like the Neptune Hub that is an attempt to create an elegant new product category.
Given its small size and dependency on crowdfunding, there’s every conventional reason to question how long Neptune can last.
Given its marketing power and reputation, there’s no reason to think that the Apple Watch will not be at least a conventional, moderate business success. But, whatever success the Watch has and will have cannot mostly be attributed to design – which Apple used to claim to be among its chief differentiators.
I’m not predicting the demise of Apple, which has been heralded ever since Steve Jobs’ death. It’s very hard to drive a company, with $150 billion in the bank, to extinction any time soon. And Apple’s products are not bad at all. (I suppose that’s faint praise 😉
It may seem churlish to criticize the largest company in the world, one that seems headed toward being the first with a trillion dollar stock market valuation. But money is not the measure of all things, as the old line goes and Jobs himself inferred.
What Apple perhaps is facing is a kind of typical corporate maturity – with solid products, but a greater emphasis on sales/marketing and management processes, rather than on design and the user’s needs. It was exactly that kind of shift that Steve Jobs criticized in Robert Cringely’s Lost Interview with him. Jobs’ target was IBM and HP. But no company is immune, as he knew.
The observations that Jobs made about what it takes for both small and big companies to make great leaps are even more relevant today than twenty years ago when the video was recorded. Those of us who consume new technology can only hope that somewhere out there is another Jobs who has learned his lessons– and who will ensure newly designed products that get closer to being invisible, after all.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis