[Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.]
Last week, Jony Ive left Apple under a cloud which in and of itself is fascinating. The leaks out of Apple suggest that Tim Cook no longer cares about design and Ive’s talents were being wasted, so he is moving on.
Cook is disputing this vigorously using a Trump-like “Fake News” argument…even though we’re all hard-pressed to point to many innovative designs since Steve Jobs’ death. Granted there was the Apple Watch, but even though it is arguably best in class, it doesn’t even really look like a watch. It’s more like a small iPod you can wear on your wrist.
Assuming Ive can still create stunning designs – because, let’s face it, the cheese grater-like Mac Pro has had mixed reviews (though I actually like it) – he’s now an independent agent. Microsoft has a line of products called the Surface that were specifically designed to compete with Apple’s PC line. The Surface is a design-forward line, and it would be a real coup if Microsoft got Ive to design their next Surface iteration without the constraints Tim Cook put on Apple’s product (Apple has been massively cost-reducing pretty much everything to maintain margins in a declining market).
Could the next Microsoft Surface represent what Ive wanted Apple to build but Cook wouldn’t let him?
Taking Apple’s design legacy
One of the things that differentiated Steve Jobs as a CEO for Apple was that he loved the product. From day one he was a product guy: He knew the appearance of the product was a critical portion of its success and why people were so loyal to the brand and offerings.
That was and is not typical. For much of its history the PC was an ugly beige box with a focus more on cost reduction than on creating something people would be proud of. Jobs’ success in the market was a large portion of why the industry changed and most OEMs flipped to making far more attractive design-forward lines.
The line that was the most targeted at Apple’ legacy was the Microsoft Surface, which was initially designed to counter the threat represented by the iPad’s move into the PC space. Ironically, that move petered out, but it left behind the Surface, which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in the segment. The Surface Book with its removable tablet component was a showcase of innovation and design and remains one of the most envied PC products in the market.
With Apple clearly backing away from a design-forward model and instead focusing ever more sharply on increasing margins by cutting costs, there is an opportunity for someone like Microsoft to fully take the design lead…and now they could use Ive to do it.
Surface by Ive
Now if I were to put something like this together, I’d co-brand it with Jony’s name so that buyers knew that if they wanted a product designed by Jony Ive, this was it. Regardless of whether you believe Cook’s position or not (I clearly do not), the fact is that with Jony gone from Apple and opening his own shop that future Jony Ive products are going to come from, his new customers won’t be his old employer.
So, I’m anticipating a line of products from someone with name recognition. And since I’m suggesting that line be the Microsoft Surface, a “by Ive” name would be the most powerful way to achieve it. At the very least, an Apple customer would see a “Surface by Ive” name and at least consider it, where they might not even look twice at any other PC.
Of course, if I’m a PC OEM I wouldn’t care much for this outcome. In fact, there will probably be a bit of a feeding frenzy to see if an OEM can tie Jony up before Microsoft does. Assuming an attractive design, the sales hit on one or more of the other Windows PC OEMs is likely to be even bigger than on Apple’s sales, given it’s far easier to switch between Windows PC vendors than Apple and anyone else.
Any PC product (maybe any product) connected with Ive’s name would get a ton of free interest and likely spread virally through the internet.
It should have been clear to everyone that Tim Cook’s Apple is vastly different than Steve Jobs’ Apple was, and we should have anticipated the move away from design as the firm focused more on cost containment. One of the latest departures is Jony Ive who now can use his creative mind to design and build the products that Apple wouldn’t let him make. The obvious place, at least in the PC space, for him to focus is on the Apple-targeted Surface line, because just his name alone would pull Apple customers to the line.
Microsoft has been incredibly creative of late regarding partnerships and market initiatives. It isn’t a stretch to suggest they are looking at the opportunity Ive represents as an independent. In fact, I imagine they are chomping at the bit to get him to design their next Surface line. Given the comments between Ive and Cook, the competitive response to this is unlikely to come from Apple and more likely to come from another PC OEM who wants to make sure the Ive designs don’t go to Surface and screw up their own PC market opportunity.
It’s likely that Ive will design a really cool future PC and my money is on it being a Surface. But whether it’s with Microsoft or another manufacturer, I can hardly wait to see what results.
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