Apple confirms iPhone UI creator’s departure, shoots down ill-founded power struggle claim

Jonathan Ive being kinghted

Yesterday, blogger Mark Gurman reported that Apple’s Vice President of Human Interface, Greg Christie, will be leaving the company. Christie’s name is on a hundred Apple patents, among them the famous slide-to-unlock invention asserted in its second California patent trial against Samsung.

The herald of Apple’s iOS design aesthetic, his departure was framed as a significant loss for the company based on Gurman’s assertion that Christie was forced out due to his falling out with Jony Ive, Apple’s SVP of Design, over iOS design direction.

However, turns out that Gurman’s sources were wrong: Apple on Thursday denied the claim of an internal power struggle. Christie’s departure after 18 years of service was planned and is part of a leadership transition inside the Human Interface group, Apple said in a statement to several media outlets…

Apple issued the following statement to The Wall Street Journal, The Financial TimesTechCrunch and a few other outlets:

Greg has been planning to retire later this year after nearly 20 years at Apple. He has made vital contributions to Apple products across the board, and built a world-class Human Interface team which has worked closely with Jony for many years.

With Christie’s retirement, Ive – who played a key role in the iOS 7 overhaul – will continue his expansion into software.

Christie’s user interface group previously reported to Craig Federighi, Apple’s software chief, and will now report to the head of all design across the company, Jony Ive, according to an internal email obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

Christie joined Apple in 1996 to work on the firm’s ill-fated Newton PDA project that featured a touchscreen controlled by a stylus. He continued to work at Apple on Mac software and retained his interest in portable computers until Scott Forstall in late-2004 challenged him to work on a secret project – the iPhone’s user interface.

January 2007 iPhone introduction (Steve Jobs, multitouch patented slide)

Sources told the financial newspaper that Christie and Ive “sometimes struggled to agree on software-design decisions,” but maintain that his exit was long in the making and part of Apple’s planned leadership transition inside the Human Interface group.

TechCrunch’s heard the same, writing that Christie’s departure “has been known for weeks — and planned for even longer”.

Christie worked under Forstall for many years, and there may have been plenty of times he didn’t agree with Ive, but there has reportedly been a distinct lack of drama in this transition.

Indeed, if there was any bad blood brewing between Ive and Christie, he would have been fired before work started on the iOS 7 redesign. Moreover, the conciliatory tone of Apple’s media statement leaves little room for talk of an internal power struggle. Indeed, why hang around throughout 2014 if there was a conflict within the design group?

Slide to Unlock doormat

Matthew Panzarino, reporting for TechCrunch:

We hear Christie will stay at Apple a bit longer working on “special projects,” in a similar manner to former SVP of Technology Bob Mansfield, until he exits. From what we understand, Christie was recently moved into a role with no direct reports, which is often the harbinger of retirement at Apple.

Apple pundit John Gruber wrote on his blog, Daring Fireball, that Christie plans to stay on until the end of the year.

What I’ve heard, from several sources: Christie and Ive may not see eye to eye on UI design style, but his departure isn’t nearly as contentious as Mark Gurman’s report at 9to5Mac implies. The basic gist I’ve heard is that Christie is a guy who’s been in a high-pressure, high-profile job for 18 years, most of it reporting to Steve Jobs.

He’s made a lot of money and is ready to enjoy it. That’s largely in line with the Apple PR line given to the WSJ, but I heard all of this from ground-level Cupertino-area pixel-pushing designers.

Apple has uncharacteristically made Christie available for an interview with the Wall Street Journal ahead of the second Apple vs. Samsung patent trial in California to discuss iPhone development.

“From 2005 through to the announcement in January and sale in June 2007, it was pretty much nonstop. You had to be prepared to discuss what you were working on at any time of the day, any day of the week, any week of the month,” he testified.

Steve_Jobs first iphone

Apple has not said who, if anyone, will take Christie’s job. It is possible that his departure will result in further consolidation of the ranks at Cupertino to enable even tighter integration.

Keep in mind that former iOS architect Scott Forstall’s firing in October 2012 over the Maps debacle was framed as increasing collaboration across hardware, software and services groups amid heightened competition.

“As part of these changes, Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi will add more responsibilities to their roles,” said the firm.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: with these changes, not only has Jony Ive become torchbearer for Apple’s design sensibility, he’s now arguably the most influential, if not the most powerful, figure at Apple.

Does it make sense to you for all design teams to report to Jony Ive?