Apple’s restructure to accommodate the departure of Jony Ive led to some concern that Apple wasn’t giving design quite as high a profile in the past – amid claims and counter-claims about the run-up to it.

There is no direct replacement for Ive as head of design, and instead of the hardware and software leads reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook, they are reporting into COO Jeff Williams.

But this shouldn’t be cause for concern; quite the opposite …

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Apple’s restructure already makes sense

As my colleague Bradley Chambers observed, it already makes a lot of sense to have design report to operations.

Whenever people question design and COO, I want to point them to the MacBook keyboard issues.

Because Jony Ive had such power at Apple, he was able to push through a design that was beautifully slim but which couldn’t be manufactured with the required level of reliability. Hence the report today about Apple abandoning the butterfly design. Having operations able to push back against design decisions which look good in the lab but won’t scale to mass production is an extremely important change.

As Steve Jobs himself said:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

But the restructure goes further than this

Apple commentator John Gruber suggests that Apple’s restructure goes even further.

One key point that I missed in [my first take on Ive’s departure] is that having design chiefs Evans Hankey (Industrial Design) and Alan Dye (Human Interface Design) report directly to COO Jeff Williams does make sense organizationally. What I had missed is that coincident with the announcement of Ive’s departure, Apple promoted Sabih Khan to senior vice president of operations. Apple hasn’t had an SVP of operations since Jeff Williams held the title, back when Tim Cook was COO under Steve Jobs. Back then Williams ran operations while Cook ran the company and Jobs devoted his remaining time to new products.

Williams still holds the title COO, but titles don’t mean much at Apple. Rank matters, of course, and SVP is an elite level at Apple — there are only 13 executives at that level, and one of them is still Jony Ive. But the literal titles don’t necessary describe what executives do. Eddy Cue’s title — senior vice president of internet software and services — comes to mind. I don’t know where one would begin crafting a succinct title that accurately describes Cue’s domain, but that’s not it. That just doesn’t matter at Apple.

This means Sabih Kahn is running operations now. Jeff Williams’s title hasn’t changed, but he’s effectively now running product development. He’s led the Apple Watch product team from its inception; now I think he’s overseeing product for everything. Cook and Williams did run operations while holding the COO title, but what “COO” really means at Apple is “second in command”. Tim Cook didn’t move design under operations; he promoted Williams to a new position, effectively “chief product officer”, and as such it makes sense that Hankey and Dye would report to him.

Gruber suggests that Williams’ real role now is ‘chief product officer,’ but given that both hardware and software design heads report to him, you could equally well argue that Williams has now taken on Ive’s role as head of design.

Either way, Apple’s restructure means we now have someone with immense operations experience making the final call on design decisions, and that’s got to be good news when it comes to product reliability.

There’s a reason Williams keeps his COO title

As for title, there’s likely a very good reason Williams remains COO on paper, whatever his real responsibilities. That title does indeed say ‘second in command,’ but more specifically it means ‘CEO designate.’ At some point, Williams is going to replace Cook.

That raises the question of when Cook will go, and what he will do. The ‘what’ is, I think, clear. Cook said back in 2015 that he plans to give away all his wealth, and to take a thoughtful approach to the way that money is used.

He plans to give away all his wealth, after providing for the college education of his 10-year-old nephew […] Cook says that he has already begun donating money quietly, but that he plans to take time to develop a systematic approach to philanthropy rather than simply writing checks.

The most obvious way to do that would be by establishing a foundation, and then running it himself. To do exactly what Bill Gates did, leaving his role as Chairman of Microsoft to establish the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cook doesn’t have the same sums of money to play with, of course, but he’s still the kind of man who would want to take an extremely active role in ensuring that the money is spent in a way that achieves the biggest impact in the areas which matter most to him.

Cook also frequently speaks out on social issues, and has taken a certain amount of flack for doing so. There are those who feel that he should be focusing less on activism and more on his role at Apple, and I can see a time where he decides that the activism is more important to him. Right now, his role as Apple CEO amplifies his voice, but there will come a time when he feels his profile is high enough to maintain media interest without the job title.

When that will be is harder to predict. Cook clearly cares immensely about Apple, but that doesn’t mean he will necessarily want to continue running the company indefinitely. If he feels Williams represents a safe pair of hands – something already demonstrated by this restructure – then that makes it possible for him to hand over the reigns with a clean conscience sooner rather than later.

Apple can’t afford another major upheaval in its senior leadership anytime in the immediate future, but two years down the line? I could see that.

That’s my take on Apple’s restructure; what’s your view? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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