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Does he stay or go? Parsing Apple's promotion of designer Jony Ive

Gregg Keizer | May 28, 2015
Apple's well-known designer, Jony Ive, has been promoted to the position of chief design officer, a new title in the Cupertino, Calif. company's executive suite.

"This is simply what a top-level executive leaving the world's largest corporation looks like," echoed Joe Cieplinski, the co-host of Release Notes, a podcast about iOS development, and a user experience (UX) designer. "A person such as Jony Ive can't just retire from Apple one day. He or she must transition, over the course of a year or more, so as to cushion the impact on the stock price, public perception, etc.," Cieplinski wrote on his personal blog Tuesday.

No, that's not it, countered Moorhead.

"This cements [Ive] there for the next five to 10 years," Moorhead predicted. "I imagine that they gave him a bunch of stock to lock him in."

Apple has a habit of doing just that: When Cook was promoted to CEO just weeks before Jobs' death, Apple awarded him a grant of 1 million shares (equivalent to 7 million shares after a split in 2014) that were to vest over a 10-year stretch if he stuck with the company.

If there was such a stock grant, Apple may not disclose the details until after July 1 — in other words not until its third-quarter earnings report, which will go public in October.

Instead of a clue to Ive's departure, his promotion hints at a strategic succession plan and an attempt to keep not just the designer, but others, at the company. With the creation of the new chief design officer title, Apple has made room for movement of people like Dye, who will oversee user interface design (software), and Howarth, after July 1 the head of industrial design (hardware). The two will report to Ive.

"If people [like Dye and Howarth] think Ive will be there forever, it would be hard to keep them interested and motivated," said Moorhead. "Now, without Ive leaving Apple, the company can have people come up and be there if Jony would leave."

Ive is also one of the strongest remaining links to co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs. The Jobs-Ive partnership, according to all reports, was especially tight, and obviously productive for Apple. Although the kind of questions raised by some in 2011 when Jobs died — concern over Apple's future — were in hindsight unwarranted, others have raised them again on the news that Ive might be on his way out.

Nothing to see here, the analysts essentially said.

"Ive has made an incredible contribution, and the company would not be the same if he left," said Rubin. "But obviously Apple is much bigger than any individual."

Dawson agreed. "Absolutely, Apple has demonstrated that it's more than the specific individuals," Dawson said, citing Apple's growth since Jobs' passing. At the same time, he had questions. "Does Ive leaving, or when that happens, mean that they've lost all of that? Or has he passed enough along? Designers are unique. If you lose a great operations officer, you can find another great operations officer because the rules are basically the same. But design is very personal, and each is truly unique, with their own specific takes on product design."


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