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They were a crack team, the visionary, and the artist. While one conceived what seemed like ideas straight up the alley of magical realism, the other brought such aspirations to fruition with a combination of exceptional intuition and delectable artisanship. The designer, the Ying to the diviner’s yang. Together, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive transformed Apple from yet another occupant in the technology ecosystem into a monolith that captured the imagination of the world. And in the process, the sorcerer and his apprentice also made their brand the most valuable in the world of unforgiving capitalism.
However, as Tripp Mickle, a tech reporter based in San Francisco, demonstrates in his compelling and meticulously researched work, After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, the untimely demise of arguably one the most imaginative and innovative personalities ever to have graced the domain of Information Technology, also brought in its unfortunate wake changes to an organisation whose uncompromising Mantra was ingenuity. The Sorcerer was now replaced by a successor whose functioning was based on the dependable yet staid crucible of logic.
For a decade and more, the American Jobs and the Englishman Ive made magic out of minimalism. Every release of an Apple product enclosed in exquisitely designed packages of white plastic or aluminium paid tribute to the highest quality of aesthetics, while at the same time sticking to the cardinal requirement of preserving functionality. But as Mickle illustrates, Tim Cook whose chosen head newly wore the crown – and continues to do so – following Job’s death due to pancreatic cancer in 2011, did not nurse within, either the lateral thinking of Jobs or the artistry of Ive.
In a gob smacking change, Cook metamorphosed Apple from a company manufacturing an elite and original phalanx of products into a behemoth churning out a plethora of services. Diligently rising every morning at 4.00 A.M to pore over the sales reports, Cook also maintained a frugal lifestyle inhabiting a modest apartment located within the vicinity of the Apple campus at Cupertino. His penchant for numbers made him a human hard drive. One of the employees’ nightmares in the company was getting interrogated in an unceasing manner by Cook at meetings.
Jony Ive in the meantime grieved the passing of his mentor and friend in his own way. Reticent by nature, the redoubtable designer hated public speaking. Preferring to remain in the shadows and work the strings from behind the stage, Ive reveled in the showmanship of Steve Jobs. However, the stoic and placid nature of Cook combined with his hands off approach to designing, made Ive become even more reclusive. Ive’s exclusive team of designers occupied the highest pantheon of importance at Apple. Living like “rock stars” they frequented the best of restaurants, while not being awash with Champaigne and had a ready cache of drugs!
A burnt-out Ive concentrated more on designing Apple’s new corporate building (an order for glass alone for the purposes of the construction cost upwards of a billion dollars) than on designing products for what now had become a profit-oriented services driven company. Even though the company spend thousands, if not millions of dollars exploring the introduction of a self-driven car and took a bold gamble of penetrating the multi-trillion-dollar health care industry by trying to burnish the Apple Watch with some novel health related features, both endeavours failed to see the light of the day.
Even though the usual suspects continue to flow from the Apple funnel (upgraded versions of the iPhone, iPads and the Air Pods), Mickle gives the reader a definite impression of the iPhone being not just a once-in-generation product but also a once-in-a-generation concept, in so far as Apple is concerned. Cook’s focus is on building at an unrelenting pace, Apple’s foray in the services segment of the business, namely, streaming music, and a flood of apps.
As Mickle also illustrates in startling detail, Cook was different from his predecessor in ‘harnessing’ group conflicts and simmering interpersonal tensions for the good of the company. Cook preferred to take a hands-off approach and watch quarrels resolve, from a safe distance. For example, when the iPhone 4 started dropping calls on account of a hardware error – as against a suspected software fiasco – the iPhone software chief Scott Forstall threw a frightening fit. “A prototype issued to Forstall repeatedly dropped calls while he was on the phone. He feared that the problem was software related and called on staff, figure out what was wrong. After his team found no coding issue, Forstall discovered that the problem was occurring because of the phone’s design. Ive had wanted a slimmer, lighter iPhone, which he been achieved by wrapping its metal antenna around the edges of the device. Forstall was apoplectic. He blasted the flawed design in conversations with Jobs and complained that it had been hidden from his software team. Ive bristled at the criticism.”
While Apple continues to set the cash registers ringing and retains its place at the pinnacle of the corporate world in terms of profitability and shareholder value, an allegiance to the magnificence of innovation, which once made up the core and crux of its reason for incorporation, has unfortunately, and perhaps irretrievably, fallen by the wayside.
After Steve: An absolutely engrossing read!