Apple and the Cult of Personality

Image source: Inexhibit (2016)
Image source: Inexhibit (2016)

If you’re a tech enthusiast, you’ve certainly heard that Apple’s Chief Design Officer (CDO), Sir Jony Ive, has announced that he is leaving the company to start his own firm, LoveFrom. This is massive news, as Ive has played a major part in the design and success of a wide range of Apple hardware, from the original iMac G3 in 1998 through to today’s iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches.

As with any major tech news, there have been myriad stories across the Web, both good and bad. Ben Thompson of Stratechery wrote a very insightful piece called Jony Ive Leaves Apple, in which he details Apple’s growth as a company from hardware through to software and now services.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball quickly produced a fantastic analysis of Ive’s role as Apple’s tastemaker in the post-Jobs era, inspired by his collaboration with the co-founder. Gruber also expresses his concern about the handing-over of design to operations and defines what has made modern Apple so great:

I’ve never been an “Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs” person. But part of what made Apple the Apple we know in the post-1997 era is that when Jobs was at the helm, all design decisions were going through someone with great taste. Not perfect taste, but great taste.

Another compelling piece came from Matthew Panzarino in the form of Apple Sans Ive on TechCrunch. In it, Panzarino details how Apple observers generally follow one of two narratives about Ive:

  • Jony had checked out, become incompetent or just plain lazy
  • Apple is doomed because he is leaving

As Panzarino explains, these viewpoints are totally contradictory. How can it be that a man who was apparently so integral to Apple’s design success was also a major liability, prioritising form over function? It doesn’t make any sense and Panzarino is correct.

Whilst I agree with Panzarino that there are two major narratives here, I believe that there is a third narrative: one that encompasses not only tech writing about Ive, but the entire representation of Apple as a company.

This narrative is the cult of personality and it has tainted all reporting on Ive before and after his announcement—even in high-quality tech publications and blogs.

OK, let’s take a step back. Apple and its fans have long been described as cultish. What does it mean to be or have a ‘cult of personality’ though?

According to Oxford Dictionary, a personality cult involves:

Excessive public admiration for or devotion to a famous person, especially a political leader.

One of the most notable historical examples of a cult of personality was in the Soviet Union, under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Through the widespread use of the arts and propaganda, Stalin was established as the ultimate political personality: a hero of the people and the source of national success. It was as much a media exercise as a governmental one.

Whilst the concept is generally associated with the promotion of political leaders by their own parties and government-controlled media, today I argue that their place has been assumed by corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, be it Jobs, Bezos or Zuckerberg.

We saw this first with the return of Jobs to Apple following the NeXT acquisition. As he rejoined the company and took the role of interim CEO (iCEO), Jobs remade the company according to his own vision, establishing a simpler product matrix and a renewed focus on design. Jobs discovered Ive upon his return, inspiring him to stay and contribute to the new mission. Their collaboration was undoubtedly instrumental to Apple’s survival and ongoing success.

With Apple’s renewal, a cult of personality formed around Jobs that was so strong that following his death, the ultimate sensationalist narrative was perpetuated by technology and business media: Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs.

In the years since 2011, this narrative has proven to be incorrect. Apple has been taken to its greatest heights by none other than the operations guy, Tim Cook. Long been criticised for lacking the product vision of his predecessor, Cook has been viewed by tech and business journalists through the lens of Jobs’s cult of personality. The media have been unable to see the broader story of Apple and its transformed employee and design culture. Jobs was indeed integral to Apple’s success, however only with the ability to choose his desired ‘A-players’, such as Cook and Ive.

Cook’s Apple has been making an overt, concerted effort to avoid the same kind of personality cult it suffered under Jobs, which was both the making of its co-founder and the media, much like Stalinist Russia. For example, where keynotes were once conducted almost entirely by Jobs, major announcements are now shared by numerous diverse employees, such as Jeff Williams and Kevin Lynch for Apple Watch, Craig Federighi for macOS and iOS, Lisa Jackson for environmental initiatives, John Ternus for pro Mac hardware, Phil Schiller for iPhone and camera developments and even other rising keynote stars such as Colleen Novielli and Jennifer Bailey.

This has also been complemented by a de-emphasis of Ive’s role in design, which has been twofold:

  1. the past introduction of key members of Ive’s design team such as Alan Dye and Richard Howarth; and
  2. the reduction of Ive’s appearances and product videos, which had earlier become a brand cliché and led to an excessive amount of parody material online.

To me, this has been one of the master strokes of Tim Cook’s Apple. Aside from its astounding sales success, Apple has strived to make itself a more open, accessible company, with a diverse range of speakers that represent its growing complexity and various product and service offerings. Furthermore, it has attempted to shift the focus to issues such as user privacy and sustainability.

Cook’s preference in spending less time onstage during keynotes is often seen as an admission that he isn’t the product guy that Jobs was. Instead, I believe that Cook has made a strategic PR decision to change the face of Apple, guarding it from the same kind of ‘Apple-is-doomed-without…’ narratives that battered the company following Jobs’s death. Much like the Soviet Union’s attempt to ‘de-Stalinise’ follow Stalin’s death, Cook’s Apple is attempting to create a more diverse, inclusive image.

Yet, for all of this effort, business and tech media have jumped on the next simple narrative of personality, with Ive as either the last guard of Jobs’s design vision or a tired character of the past who has prioritised form over function.

This brings me to the final great misunderstanding of Apple, which I initially hinted at in my piece Apple and the Craftsmen, about the services event in March:

Truly, Apple is no longer just a corporation—this event’s purpose was to tell the story of Apple and its craftspeople and show just how invaluable its technology is to various markets and art forms.

Business and tech writers, for all of their knowledge of Apple, still the see it as a hardware company. Design is held above all else as Apple’s greatest attribute. With the death of Jobs and now departure of Ive, this sacred value is apparently now under threat… or at least uncertain.

From the time of Jobs and Ive all the way through to today, we see a company that has taken great strides beyond the world of hardware design, into digital content streaming, news, cloud sync services, mapping, social networking (e.g. iMessage), machine learning, AR, refreshed retail stores and new products such as HomePod, Apple Watch and accompanying watch bands as fashion accessories.

With this obsession for Jobs and now Ive as cult personalities, the tech and business media—perhaps unintentionally—hold onto a memory of Apple as a simpler company that used hardware design as a key differentiator when it was necessary for its survival.

Thompson alluded to the shift to software and services over time but I believe that it goes deeper, changing the very values of the company in a way that will empower the company to be so much more. Like I wrote in Challenging Three Apple Myths, we now see a company that can walk and chew gum at the same time.

As we enter the newly dubbed post-iPhone/post-NeXT/post-Ive era, I hope that tech and business media will begin to analyse Apple and its personalities in a way that is less narrow. Appreciating Ive’s legacy means more than just his relationship with Jobs—it requires an appreciation of his design work’s interplay with hardware engineering, software, services, marketing and environmental policy, along with thousands of people who made this all happen.

Apple is not just a design company anymore; it is an experience company. It’s time for the tech and business media to catch up.

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