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It has brought the first real test of the leadership of chief executive Tim Cook. At issue: not just whether the Apple boss is up to managing the bevy of talented, ambitious and sharp-elbowed executives below him, but whether he can shape the company he inherited from Steve Jobs in his own image, as the touchscreen computing revolution that Mr Jobs set in motion gathers speed.
Scott Forstall, a former close lieutenant of Mr Jobs, has been the main casualty of the upheaval. Head of the iOS software used in the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, Mr Forstall’s ambition for more power at the company had long been apparent, said Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray.
If that led to stresses in the senior ranks, then the shambolic launch of Apple’s maps service in September has provided the catalyst for a change. Mr Forstall’s group went ahead with the service despite claims from some outside developers that they warned of flaws. After the launch, Apple was beset by complaints about errors in the maps.
In the event, it was Mr Cook who apologised publicly for the mistakes, even going so far as to recommend Apple customers turn to maps from hated rivals Google and Microsoft instead. But, like Mr Jobs before him, he has proved intolerant of failure.
In a second, unrelated move, Apple also parted ways this week with the head of its retail stores, John Browett, just six months after the former head of UK retailer Dixons took up the post.
Announced late on Monday, just as hurricane Sandy was moving towards its devastating climax on the US east coast and with markets shut down, the two-part shake-up could hardly have been better timed to avoid the sort of intense Wall Street scrutiny it would have received at any other time. But Mr Cook will find it hard to stay out of the limelight.
If Mr Jobs’ dominant presence was enough to keep senior-level feuding in check, Mr Cook’s own leadership skills and style have now been thrown into question. The signs of instability and missteps at the top also raise a question about the new CEO’s own judgment, since it was Mr Cook himself who hired Mr Browett for the retail job just months ago.
He has now cast his weight strongly behind design chief Jonathan Ive, who has emerged from the changes in the closest role to a single, overarching product chief that Apple has had since Mr Jobs’ death.
Mr Ive will be taking charge of “leadership and direction for Human Interface across the company”, Apple said – code for extending his remit from hardware into software and services and giving him the ultimate say in the all-important customer experience that sets Apple apart. Mr Jobs himself once acted as the guardian of Apple’s “user experience”, blocking anything that didn’t come up to his exacting standards and insisting on his idea of perfection. Now, it is Mr Ive who has become the guardian of Apple’s soul
Mr Forstall’s direct responsibilities, meanwhile, have been divided up between two other executives, with recently promoted Mac software boss Craig Federighi taking on iOS and services head Eddy Cue assuming maps and Siri voice-activated search, another highly touted Apple service that has yet to live up to its billing.
“The real story is that they’re trying to consolidate around Jony Ive,” said Mr Munster of the moves.
Beyond the immediate need for a management rejig, the reorganisation also appears to reflect a response to deeper changes in Apple’s markets. By grouping all the company’s online services in one division and putting Mac and iOS software under a single leader, Mr Cook has moved to break down some of Apple’s main product “silos”.
In the process, he is moving closer to completing the integration of hardware, software and services that Mr Jobs promoted at Apple but never saw through to its ultimate conclusion, said Mark Anderson, an independent US technology analyst.
The timing may not be coincidental. It comes just as Apple’s main rivals have finally started to catch up with some of its hardware breakthroughs of recent years – and as they come up with their own solutions to the problems many people now experience with managing and co-ordinating the multiple digital devices in their lives.
Google this week added a 10-inch tablet to the Nexus line of hardware devices over which it takes closer design control than other gadgets running its Android software. Its aim is to produce a completely interchangeable experience across screens of all sizes, including a smartphone and a 7-inch tablet, according to Hugo Barra, a Google product manager.
Microsoft, meanwhile, on Monday put the finishing touches to its own recent extensive product overhauls. It can now claim the same user interface and core technology in all its personal operating systems, from smartphones to PCs – even if it has yet to make any dent in the touchscreen market.
All of this has added on the pressure on Mr Cook to make Apple’s products and services work better together, said Mr Anderson, bringing Mac and iOS software under one roof and trying to stamp a single unified design sensibility across the company.
It is now up to the smaller, more close-knit management team that Mr Cook has just put in place to see Mr Jobs’ revolution through to its conclusion.