Apple infighting may be sign of golden age waning

October 31, 2012

By Robert Cyran
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Executive infighting at Apple may be a sign of a golden age on the wane. The company’s genius has always been the smooth integration of art and engineering. Steve Jobs’ force of will kept an uneasy peace between these two camps. With mobile software chief Scott Forstall out, design guru Jony Ive will have a say over hardware and software. That is a big ask, as Apple needs mastery of both.

Forstall has been a power in the company’s software for donkey’s years. He worked with Jobs at Next, and then followed his boss back to Apple – first helping develop its OS X operating system for Macs, and then running the iOS platform for the iPhone and then iPad.

Yet his abrasiveness, the difficulty Forstall and Ive had working together, and recent missteps – most obviously the botched release of Apple’s Maps app, over which Chief Executive Tim Cook had to apologize publicly – provided ample excuse for the company to see him off, without even a few customary pleasant words about Forstall’s tenure at the company.

Of course, Jobs never shied away from firing people for incompetence. He famously fired the head of online service MobileMe in front of the unit’s employees. Executive brusqueness was often encouraged, which helped prevent the company from putting out cludgy software designed by committee. Jobs at the helm was able to force big egos like Forstall and Ive not only to work together, but to bring out the best in both.

Ive’s new responsibility over how both software and hardware look, and how people interact with them, could help Apple keep bridging the gap between these two worlds in the way Jobs did. And the executive changes could open up new worlds for Apple.

Both the mobile and Mac software are being developed by the same executive, which could mean the company’s products work even more smoothly together. And Ive’s design sense could help Apple branch out into areas beyond computing – after all, much of the company’s success in phones derives from the iPhone’s looks, which can be largely pinned on Ive.

But Apple’s phenomenal success over the past decade came from its uncanny ability to keep its equilibrium. Executive infighting could be one of the first signs that the firm could lose its balance and become a more ordinary technology company.

 

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