Jony Ive Is The Most Powerful Person At Apple

Yesterday I put forth my theory on the issue underlying this ongoing App Store scuffle with developers: a bigger battle between Apple hardware and software. While Apple is quite confident, and some would even say defiant, with its hardware and design, software seems to be treated with some level of hesitation and debate as Apple continues to think about how iOS should be used, especially after a plethora of new APIs are released to developers. Regardless of the near-term solution to the App Store issues, be it management changes, organizational structure tweaks, or nothing at all, I suspect Apple SVP of Design Jonathan Ive’s influence will play a role in the discussion. I deliberately hinted in yesterday’s article that in my view, Jony is currently the most powerful person at Apple. I knew such a statement needed an article unto itself because of its controversial underpinnings. We are currently seeing Jony’s Apple uncurl its wings, and while there are clearly risks involved with Jony holding so much power, in some ways, Jony is filling some of Steve Job’s old role as master collaborator and thinker.  
The world generally knows very little about Jony Ive. While there have been some books written about the man, such as Leander Kahney’s Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, I’ve always been able to fall back on Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, to get a bit more direct interpretation from Steve Jobs himself on certain topics.

Here’s Steve Jobs on Jony:

“The difference that Jony has made, not only at Apple but in the world, is huge. He is a wickedly intelligent person in all ways. He understands business concepts, marketing concepts. He picks stuff up just like that, click. He understands what we do at our core better than anyone. If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony. Jony and I think up most of the products together and then pull others in and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ He gets the big picture as well as the most infinitesimal details about each product. And he understands that Apple is a product company. He’s not just a designer. That’s why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.”

Jony has long held a considerable amount of power at Apple. While the last major executive reshuffle in 2012 led to Jony gaining more responsibility by assigning him to lead Human Interface across the company, I don’t necessarily look at the change as altering Jony’s ultimate power trajectory. If Jony is the most powerful person at Apple, where does Tim Cook fit into the picture? On an organizational chart, Tim Cook may indeed be at the top (I have some doubts that is the case, but for simplicity’s sake, I will take what is written on Apple’s leadership page as correct), it is far from given that a company’s CEO is the de facto most powerful employee at that company. A CEO works for a public company’s board of directors, which has the power to fire that CEO (one reason why proper corporate governance calls for the CEO to not also hold the board chairman seat). While CEOs may think they have the ability to fire or hire anyone at will without any checks or balances, they are mistaken. Of course, in practice, this type of situation doesn’t come up too often, but maybe that’s more of a statement on mediocrity in corporate America and board rooms. Fortunately for Apple, there isn’t much evidence to suggest “power” is an issue between Jony and Tim Cook. Both men are well aware of their involvement in the Apple machine and what would happen if that machine stops working, as seen with the 2012 reorganization.

Understanding the power Jony possesses at Apple goes a long way in analysing how Apple operates and thinks about products and new industries, which relates back to the ongoing issues with Apple software user interface and App Store review. As discussed in my article yesterday,Apple’s software quality seems to be having a tough time matching hardware quality. As someone with a similar opinion but a slightly different take told me on Twitter, software development needs to slow down to catch a breath. The much bigger picture is that software plays a vital role in how a user feels and thinks about a product. With Jony overseeing Human Interface, there may be a gap developing so that a somewhat final software product doesn’t quite mesh with Jony’s vision and intended interface guidelines. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that is the sole reason driving the App Store’s ongoing issues (which involve communication issues), I think the much larger theme is that Jony will play an increasing role in where Apple software (including the App Store) is heading. 

How does Jony operate, and is he able to the fill the void left by Steve? I suspect Jony has mastered the art of collaboration and inspiration, which helps mitigate much of the internal risk that destroys other companies. His small industrial design team is firing on all cylinders. Obviously, Steve is irreplaceable and Jony must now rely on his intuition and gut (with input from others) regarding Apple’s direction, but the important take away is I do think Jony plays a significant role in setting that direction. What then drives Jony?

As transcribed by Dezeen, here is Jony talking at Design Museum in London last month:

“I really, truly believe that people can sense care. In the same way that they can sense carelessness. I think this is about respect that we have for each other. If you expect me to buy something where all I can sense is carelessness, actually I think that is personally offensive. It’s offensive culturally, because it shows a disregard for our fellow human. I’m not saying that we get it right all the time, but at least our intent is to really, really care. Good design for me starts with that determination and motivation and I don’t think there’s anything, ever, that’s good that’s come from carelessness. The sad thing is that so much of what we’re surrounded by in the physical world that is a product of manufacture, so much of it testifies to carelessness. The one good thing about that is if you do care it is really conspicuous.”

I thought this paragraph did a wonderful job at explaining Apple’s mission in the world: making great products filled with passion. While industry consensus is set on hardware being commoditized and software taking over the world, there are important points missing. First, as software expands, new industries, with a lot of problematic product, need to be rethought. Next, a “product” doesn’t have to be tangible.  Finally, passion and emotion come from an experience (both tangible and intangible). Jony Ive has actually been the most powerful person at Apple for years. The only difference now is that the outside world is starting to see it is Jony who is truly conducting the delicate process of transforming ideas into products.

This is a post from Above Avalon, a new site from Neil Cybart, an analyst who previously commented on our site under the name Sammy The Walrus IV. You can sign up for his Apple newsletter here.

NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos

Want to read a more in-depth view on the trends influencing Australian business and the global economy? BI / Research is designed to help executives and industry leaders understand the major challenges and opportunities for industry, technology, strategy and the economy in the future. Sign up for free at