Phone innovation is primarily about chip innovation as chip architecture enables ever more complex processing capability that powers increasingly sophisticated services and elegant user experiences. Therefore, when I read that Evans Hankey – Apple’s Industrial Design VP – will be leaving the company I did not believe the loss would be as detrimental as it would have been in the Steve Jobs, Jony Ive era.
Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs was a tastemaker with a natural eye for industrial design, frictionless user experiences and superior product quality. Under Jobs Apple was known for creating brilliant new consumer products which embodied these qualities. Apple’s design function in the Jobs Era was led by Apple’s former Design chief Jony Ive.
By contrast, Apple CEO Tim Cook and COO Jeff Williams are operators, not tastemakers. Their value add is driving operating efficiency and evolutionary product enhancements, not releasing revolutionary new products. The buzz around Apple’s product line under Jobs was palpable whereas today’s Product and Service line does not generate a similar buzz. Tech nerds and early adopters aren’t iPhone customers. iPhones differ little from Google’s Pixel, Samsung’s line of phones, (not to mention some of the cool handsets designed by Chinese OEMs) and the differentiation is not necessarily favorable to Apple and certainly does not justify Apple’s pricing premium.
When Jony Ive stepped down in 2019 (I’m surprised he lasted that long after Job’s passing in October 2011), his design responsibilities were divided across two people – Evans Hankey, VP of Industrial Design and Alan Dye, VP of Human Interface/Software Design. Hankey and Dye report to COO Williams, a far cry from Ive’s experience of reporting to the greatest Consumer Technology CEO since Polaroid founder and CEO Edwin Land. Apple’s reporting structure tells you what you need to know about the design function at Apple – it has been knocked down a peg or two since Jobs’ death.
I believe the best broad design decision in recent years at Apple (to credit Tim Cook and his team), has been the strategic decision to create product-specific chips, hardware systems and software. When these three disciplines are designed to work in concert at the product-level, they create optimal outcomes in terms of tolerances, processing power and speed, efficiency and the user experience. With more and more user functions taking place entirely on the handset as opposed to in the cloud or at the edge of the network, chip design is having its day in the sun. The team at Apple that investors should become familiar with is the team led by Apple’s SVP of Hardware Technologies, Johny Srouji (brief video below).