Jonathan Ive, six months into an expanded role as Apple Inc.’s top product visionary, has embarked on a sweeping software overhaul that leaves the company at risk of falling behind on a new version of the operating system that runs iPhones and iPads, people with knowledge of the matter said.
Already in charge of product design, Ive assumed oversight of the look and feel of software running all Apple electronics in a shakeup by Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook last year that included the departure of software chief Scott Forstall.
Ive, 46, has begun revamping iPhone and iPad applications, shunning realistic images, such as wood bookshelves for the Newsstand feature, and he’s exploring more dramatic changes to the e-mail and calendar tools, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private.
Ive is also methodically reviewing new designs, seeking to avoid a repeat of last year’s release of map tools that were widely panned, and he’s encouraging collaboration between the software and hardware divisions, which operated in silos under co-founder Steve Jobs, people said.
The introduction of new features, along with an emphasis on cooperation and deliberation, comes at a cost for Cupertino, California-based Apple. Engineers are racing to finish iOS 7, the next version of the mobile software, in time for a June preview at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference.
While the company still expects to release iOS 7 on time as soon as September, internal deadlines for submitting features for testing are being set later than past releases, people said.
Staff from Apple’s Mac team have also been roped in to help the mobile-software group finish the job, people said. Apple has made similar moves in the past, including with the first version of iOS in 2007.
“Apple is really under tremendous pressure to come out with something different and something new,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Opus Research in San Francisco. Ive has “a tremendous sense of design, and he’s been the guru behind a lot of these enormously successful products, but he’s always had someone like a Jobs to push back on him and give him some guidance, and it’s not clear that Tim Cook is capable of playing that role. Maybe without a collaborator, he’s not as strong.”
Another possibility is that Apple’s next upgrade isn’t as robust or feature-rich as projected, and some changes come in future releases.
Ive has a storied place in Apple’s history. After Jobs returned as CEO in 1997, Ive’s design of the iMac helped the company regain its footing after nearly falling into bankruptcy.
Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that Ive was his “spiritual partner” at Apple to whom he gave more operational power than anybody at the company.
Ive is widely credited with working with Jobs to create the company’s most famous products, including the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Even so, his specialty has been hardware, designing a product out of materials like aluminum and glass -- not software, which is based in code.
He also has shunned the spotlight, rebuffing overtures to figure more prominently at product events. Seeing Ive around Apple’s campus was akin to a celebrity sighting, according to a former manager. It’s not clear that Ive will be as effective as Jobs in getting teams to finish projects on time.
Cook elevated Ive in October, seeking to end clashes between Forstall and other senior managers that flared in the wake of the death of former CEO Jobs, people with knowledge of the matter said at the time.
The strife made it harder for teams to work together and threatened Apple’s ability to keep producing the types of electronics that made it the most valuable company in the world.
An operations expert who built Apple’s vast supply chain, Cook opted to leave the minutiae of product design to Ive amid intensifying competition from Samsung Electronics Co. and Google Inc.
“Tim is a supply-chain expert and he needs to rely on people like Jony to be able to make the right decisions,” said David Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School in Boston. “That doesn’t mean things run smoothly -- because a challenge for Tim not being involved in the detailed product discussions is making sure that gridlock is avoided and decisions are made.”
The management shuffle in October tapped the brakes on work on the upgrade to iOS 7. New features typically submitted for testing around February ran a month or more behind schedule, according to one of the people with knowledge of the matter.
Software design involves the graphical style of images on the screen, as well as the deeper experience of how a user progresses through a given task, such as the steps needed for deleting an e-mail or entering a calendar item.
Apple hasn’t changed the look of many mobile-software programs like e-mail since the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Social-networking features are limited, and applications don’t always work well together, said Benedict Evans, an analyst at Enders Analysis in London.
“There is a tidying up that needs to be done and a rethinking,” he said.
On top of that, Ive is moving the company away from layered and literal -- or skeuomorphic -- design elements, toward ones that are intended to give the software a flatter design that’s more unified and less cluttered, according to people familiar with the changes. Bigger shifts, to such features as e-mail, may not even be ready this year and may be introduced in future releases, people said.
Longer term, Ive also has shown interest in altering how people control their computers. He has met with makers of gesture technology that lets people navigate their gadgets by moving their hands -- without touching the screen, said a personal familiar with those interactions.
“If the hardware is going to stay minimalist and reduced, I would say the next step would be to look at three-dimensional interfaces,” said Ross Lovegrove, an industrial designer who has worked with such companies as Apple and Sony Corp.
For now, the priority is getting mobile software done in time for the next iPhone, due to be released as soon as September.
The rush to finish the software running on more than 500 million iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches underscores how decision-making has slowed under the current leadership team.
While Jobs would force through ideas that he wanted the company to prioritize, Cook has emphasized collaboration. The internal debates are leading to a more deliberate approach for product and marketing decisions, according to a person at a company that does business with Apple.
Ive’s expanded influence comes at a critical time for Apple. Investors are anxious to see what new products the company will debut without Jobs’s leadership and as Samsung and Google improve their mobile products -- and hire Apple’s employees to do it. One Apple engineer who left last year said he was quickly contacted by Samsung to invite him in to talk about ways the Suwon, South Korea-based electronics giant can improve its software. Google recently hired Steve Sinclair, a veteran iOS marketing manager, for its Motorola unit.
“The bar for good design has been raised and Apple is facing fiercer competition,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research.
The stock fell less than 1 percent to $439.29 at the close in New York. Apple shares have climbed 8.2 percent since April 23, when Cook announced plans for the largest share buyback in corporate history. Even so, Apple remains under pressure to deliver a new breakthrough hit amid slowing growth and a stock-price slump that has wiped out more than a third of its value since a September peak.
Ive’s expanded role was on display in March when he led a more than two-hour town-hall meeting at the De Anza 3 auditorium in Cupertino. Cook sat listening as Ive spoke at length about the shifts under way, said two people familiar with the gathering.
For Ive, oversight of software design is a shift. Throughout his two decades at Apple, he has kept mostly to the small group of about 15 people working in secret to refine prototypes of future hardware products.
He rarely interacted with the software designers led by former mobile-software head Forstall, who had been similarly clandestine.
To end those fissures, Ive now attends meetings with the software design group along with its leader, Greg Christie, to offer feedback.
He has listened respectfully in those sessions and has been careful not to try to force through his ideas, this person said. He also is giving them an earlier look at what future hardware products will look like, one person said.
“Jony Ive isn’t a coder, but he clearly understands the value and importance of a rich, easy-to-use interface and he will have great input on that,” said Tim Bajarin, a technology-industry analyst with Creative Strategies. The Wall Street Journal previously reported Ive’s involvement in the software meetings.
While the exact changes Ive is implementing to Apple’s mobile software remain secret, they are significant enough that those with test versions have a special film over their iPhone screens to obstruct what others can see, one person said, a detail previously reported by the website Daring Fireball.
Cook’s decision to give new responsibilities to Ive is a natural evolution for the designer.
“Tim Cook understands that they need one individual with that eye for design to oversee both the hardware and the software,” Bajarin said.