Apple management reorganisation is an attempt to stave off threat of an innovation vacuum

30 Oct 2012

Apple CEO Tim Cook - doing an excellent job but the new structure is geared to ensure the tech giant continues to innovate ahead of the curve

Changes at the top at Apple ostensibly to increase collaboration across the technology giant’s hardware, software and services divisions are really the answer to an awkward question many have had about the future of the company since former CEO Steve Jobs’ death last year.

Apple last night announced that senior people like Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi will have more responsibilities added while Scot Forstall will leave the company next year but will serve as an adviser to CEO Tim Cook in the interim.

Ive will take on the mantle of leader of human interface (HI), as well as being the industrial design genius who helped make technology beautiful again. Cue will take on additional responsibility for Siri and Maps and will continue to strengthen Apple’s services in the area of the App Store, the iBookstore and iCloud. Federighi will lead iOS and OS X while Mansfield will lead a new group enigmatically known as ‘Technologies’, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams and semiconductor teams.

This latter group, I suspect, will be at the heart of the innovation challenge facing Apple.

That ‘awkward’ question was whether there would be an innovation vacuum at Apple following the loss of such a visionary leader such as Jobs. Jobs was both feared and admired for his unswerving passion, his attention to detail and his dedication to Apple’s success. He was both ruthless and instinctive, cruel and brilliant, idealistic and imaginative. And he always got his way, delivering the most innovative and stylish products in the history of the technology industry so far.

Cook has done a great job in the past year since Jobs’ death. He has done what he does best – he keeps things on an even keel. Cook is an organisational and operational genius, a supply chain and logistics expert, a man whose cool-headed logic and planning is central to making one of the most complex organisations in the world run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine, making competitors with infinitely more people and resources look sluggish by comparison.

It’s no wonder that since wonderful new products like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini, the fourth-generation iPad, the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro devices with Retina and OS X Mountain Lion came on the scene this past year Apple’s fortunes have risen and the company’s last quarter saw it deliver an US$8.5bn profit on revenues of US$36bn as device sales rise exponentially.

But here’s the crux: Jobs was mentioned in Walter Isaacson’s brilliant biography as saying Cook is not a products guy. What a lot of people had been thinking but not saying was many of these products that have steered Apple’s profitability and success in the past year were already in the works long before Jobs died. Apple is working to a plan and Cook is delivering.

What lies over the next hill for Apple?

But how long the life of this plan – or as they like to say in the tech industry ‘product roadmap’ – lasts is another question and you have to wonder if an organisational genius who is not a product guy can see over the next hill. It seems Cook is more aware of this himself than most.

That’s why these changes have been necessary. Apple’s management team is by far the most successful in the history of the tech industry. This is a fine-tuning to ensure that they stay on track and are flexible enough and innovative enough to carry on Jobs’ legacy, spot the next opportunities in technology, maintain their discipline and above all innovate ahead of the market. Above all, they need to lead the market as they have been doing and not to follow.

Cook’s statement affirms this need. “We are in one of the most prolific periods of innovation and new products in Apple’s history.

“The amazing products that we’ve introduced in September and October, iPhone 5, iOS 6, iPad mini, iPad, iMac, MacBook Pro, iPod touch, iPod nano and many of our applications, could only have been created at Apple and are the direct result of our relentless focus on tightly integrating world-class hardware, software and services.”

Take out the word ‘Apple’ and replace it with ‘human’ and Cook is also communicating a universal truth – we are in one of the most prolific periods of innovation and new products in human history.

Apple has many competitors nipping at its heels. Some have made a calculated decision to rip off Apple by crudely copying its devices. Others, while maintaining in image of innovating on their own terms in the world of software, have to acknowledge albeit privately, that without Apple the business of cloud and apps would not have advanced as far and as fast as it had without Apple’s ability to integrate its services with desirable products.

There’s another problem. The world has grown up rapidly in terms of innovation in just five years since the iPhone and two years since the iPad debuted. But Apple’s image of delivering only premium products at high prices for the people they know will pay for them means risking or missing out on a huge cultural seam that is emerging.

The new rebels

In other words, it’s a backlash. Being premium priced is only forcing young people in weaker economies to go with the competitors and innovate for those platforms instead. Rivals like Samsung know this and hence the hipster/barista type viral ads as a crude example.

New rebels will emerge. In fact isn’t that where Apple came from – young people who had an idealistic vision to bring computing power to the masses.

Well the computing power is now quite literally in the hands – and pockets – of the masses. We are now in the early stages of a new industrial revolution that prizes industrial design and substance, innovation and brilliance. Could Apple be the company that the crazy people and innovators will choose to rebel against?

That has always been the story of the technology industry and that is why it has always been so interesting.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years