Apple & Jony: a make-believe ending

Everyone loves a good story. Some people need a good story.

Tim Cook, for example. When Jony Ive decided to leave Apple in June 2019, Tim’s job was to reassure Wall Street that the departure of Steve Jobs’ spiritual partner was only a superficial wound.

The goal was believability, not transparency. After all, this is business. Very, very big business.

And so a story was spun.

Let’s give Tim credit for manufacturing a credible and effective tale. Then let’s wonder why no one ever poked holes in it.

A well-sculpted truth

For maximum believability, the story had to be told by both Tim and Jony. To paraphrase Apple’s press release, the final version went like this.

Jony Ive, who made amazing contributions to Apple over the last 23 years, is leaving Apple to start his own design firm (LoveFrom). But our relationship will continue. Apple will be Jony’s first client, and we are cementing our new partnership with a $100 million retainer. We look forward to working together for many years to come.

It was all about mutual admiration and respect. A new beginning. A positive evolution, not the end of a troubled relationship.

The testimonials

Tim Cook laid it on thick in Apple’s press release

“[Jony’s] role in Apple’s revival cannot be overstated … Apple will continue to benefit from Jony’s talents by working directly with him on exclusive projects … I’m happy that our relationship continues to evolve and I look forward to working with Jony long into the future.”

As did Jony, doing his part here in a Financial Times interview.

“While I will not be an employee, I will still be very involved—I hope for many, many years to come. This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.  I really am extremely happy—this really I see as an evolution of our working relationship.”

Ah, the wonders of corporate-speak. We’ll conquer new worlds by moving forward together! S’all good, man.

Strategically, the public story was quite clever. It was unassailable in the present, punting any potential damage well into the future. And even if the agreement flamed out entirely years hence, who would even care at that point?

The future is now

Well, that was convenient. Three years just passed. Tim and Jony may remain mum, but circumstantial evidence and common sense expose the Apple-Jony agreement for what it was: a creative mashup of truth, fiction and Pollyanna-ism.

The truth was that Jony wanted out. Finishing Apple Park was his passion and and his parting tribute to Steve Jobs. But his disappointment with Apple management had been growing steadily in recent years. (See Tripp Mickle’s recent book, After Steve).

The fiction was that Jony would ever work with Apple again. That $100 million payout looks like a parachute, not a retainer. It was designed to keep Jony on board with the story—not with Apple.

The optimism was that Apple investors and loyal customers would be soothed by a story based on what appeared to be a reasonable dream.

A zero-yield partnership

Zero? How dare you! Jony provided input on the redesign of the 2021 M1 iMac. Didn’t you read the Wired article, The 2021 iMac is a great family computer, thanks to Jony Ive (again)?

Sure did. And right below that frothy title, I also read the subtitle that reinforced the so-called fact: “The iMac’s first major redesign since 2012 is in almost all respects a hit. And, yes, Apple’s former chief design officer was involved.”

The M1 iMac came nearly two years after Jony started his “new relationship” with his former employer. Fans of Apple and Jony soaked in the news that Jony was performing as promised (finally!)—yet none seemed to notice the contrary fact embedded in the article itself.

Hardware design is a long process, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Ive’s fingerprints are all over this new desktop. But, interestingly, Apple would not confirm or deny if he worked on the 2021 iMac after he left the company – just that he had worked on it.

If Jony had actually worked on the M1 iMac after he left, Apple only needed to say so. “Not confirming or denying” is the hallmark of someone doing their best to avoid crossing into Untruth Territory.

Of course Jony had something to do with the M1 redesign. His ideas, sketches and concepts fill folders inside Apple’s design vaults. It would be a shocker if some of his thinking was not reflected in the M1 iMac. But that’s not exactly the kind of working relationship “for many, many years to come” that Apple and Jony so enthusiastically announced.

The no-surprise ending

Tim Cook was absolutely correct when he said that the relationship with Jony would “continue to evolve.” Last month, three years after it was first announced, the joint agreement evolved into a cloud of nothingness.

It’s dead, just in time to save Apple another $100 million in “retainer” fees.

It made sense for Apple to spend that princely sum to get to the other side of the news cycle. Years later, spending more would be pointless. Apple has long since established its ability to move on and Jony is doing what he’s doing.

Whatever happened to healthy skepticism?

I don’t criticize Apple for crafting a good story. It was a business necessity. I don’t criticize Jony, who escaped like a gentleman with a large pile of cash.

I do criticize everyone else.

I’ve been puzzled why the world was so quick to embrace a story borne of damage control. It’s even more puzzling today. When Apple decided to terminate the agreement, no one seemed to wonder what it actually got for that $100 million.

From our vantage point today, there are only two ways to view the Apple-Jony agreement.

It was either signed with the best of intentions, but went nowhere, or it was never more than a veneer designed to help both sides put an uncomfortable relationship in that past.

Your choice.

Personally, I go with the darker story. It’s the best way to explain what we’ve seen—and what we haven’t seen.