Defomicron

Software, Hardware, Silverware


False Start

I consider myself a casual Apple historian, in that I am a big fan of Apple’s work and through that interest I have learned a fair amount about their past. It is with much interest that I purchased Leander Khaney’s Jony Ive, a biography of Apple’s famed lead designer. A month ago, I linked to an excerpt about the beginnings of the first iPhone. It is quite good and had me excited to read the rest of the book. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) this was the best portion of the book by far.

I was not turned off by the entire book1. The beginning, which talks about Ive’s education and work before Apple is informative, telling a story I doubt many are familiar with. Khaney’s descriptions of Ive’s early work at Apple were also enjoyable, covering the development of the Newton, the Twentieth Anniversay Mac, and the iMac. Part of me wonders, however, if these sections were more enjoyable only because I am less familiar with those product’s stories already. If I knew more about them, would I have found as many faults with Khaney’s writing as I did with the newer products that I am familiar with?

Jony Ive by Leander Khaney
Jony Ive would not like how this book looks.

The book is entirely effusive about Jony Ive, to the point of being annoying. The hockey puck mouse that shipped with the original iMac is only gently derided, and Ive’s tendency to supplant form over function is likewise given a pass. This gushing attitude hits its high in the final chapter, where credit for the success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad is seemingly given entirely to Ive:

The iPod was a product of Jony’s simplification philosophy. It could have been just another complex MP3 player, but instead he turned it into the iconic gadget that set the design cues for later mobile devices. Two more delightful innovations, the iPhone and the iPad, were products of thinking differently, of creative engineering at work in rational problem solving on many levels.

Khaney repeatedly gives total credit for these products to Ive, which is ridiculous. Even the subtitle of the book is “The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products”. Not some of Apple’s greatest products, not a genius: he is the genius behind all of Apple’s greatest products. Ridiculous. All of the products Ive has worked on at Apple have been the result of massive team efforts of which Ive was only a single part. In many cases he was pivotal, but he was not the only pivotal person.

Regarding the iPod, Khaney even acknowledges that Ive did not have nearly as much control as with later devices. Khaney says that the idea for it came from Rubinstein (SVP of Hardware) and Fadell (Ruby’s understudy), the scroll wheel interface came from Schiller, and that Ive was only told about the project when they handed him the components of a finished unit and asked him to wrap it up in a pretty case.

The struggle between designer and engineer comes up a lot in the book. During Steve Jobs’s first reign at Apple, particularly in regards to the creation of the original Macintosh, design led engineering. Following Jobs’s departure, engineering took over and designers were forced to build pretty boxes around whatever engineering sent their way. When Jobs returned, things flipped back: designers came up with a product, and the engineers had to meet the constraints of the design. Understanding that, you’ve grasped a majority of what Khaney says about design in Jony Ive. That struggle is brought up so many times throughout the biography that I got irritated while reading whenever Khaney indicated he was about to go off on that tangent again.

Even more frustrating was when Khaney would spout things that were incorrect and/or idiotic. Again from the last chapter we get this nugget:

Before he died, Jobs revealed the degree to which he empowered Jony inside the company. “He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me,” Jobs said. “There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.”

Jobs didn’t explain exactly what he meant. According to Apple’s organization chart, Jony reports to Cook; yet, according to Jobs, Cook can’t tell him what to do.

Khaney, you’ve left out one important detail: Steve Jobs is dead. Tim Cook is CEO, and he can absolutely tell Jony Ive what Jony Ive can and can’t do at Apple. Whether or not it would be wise of Tim Cook constrain Ive is a different question, but the notion that he can’t just because Steve Jobs said so is absurd.

In his chapter on the iPad, Khaney says:

In March 2012, Apple followed up with the third-generation iPad, which added a high-density retina display, a faster chip and better cameras. In October of the same year, the fourth-generation iPad was launched with a much faster processor and cell connection, as well as a tiny lightning connector to replace the original thirty-pin connector…

Two things. First, the third-generation iPad added LTE networking, not the fourth. This is a small mistake, but it’s embarassing. These little details are the easiest to research and get correct, and we’re trusting this man to have done extensive research into a very secretive company. If he can’t get the small, public, obvious facts right how are we supposed to trust the rest of it? Second, that paragraph contains the only mention of the lightning connector, the design of which is an important recent design that, as John Gruber put it, “epitomizes what makes Apple Apple”. Did Ive have nothing to do with it? In this book we’re led to think so.

This biography leaves out a lot that I wanted to know. iOS 7, arguably the most important product Ive has worked on since the first iPhone, is covered only briefly at the very end. It is generally summarized and lauded2 without any detail behind the events besides letting us know that Scott Forstall was actually fired, despite what Apple PR claiming he stepped down. Yeah, we already knew that. I wanted new information, not the same stories I’ve seen in the news for the past year. It’s hard to completely fault Khaney for this since all of it is so recent; it’s difficult to find sources for anything inside Apple, and probably impossible to get any behind-the-scenes accounts from the past year.

We can fault Khaney, however, for spending so much time off the topic of Jony Ive the man. There is much discussion of Steve Jobs, who was very important to Ive but not unfamiliar to anyone reading this biography. In fact, most who read Jony Ive will have read Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs, a text that Khaney cites numerous times. Later, there is far too much discussion on Apple’s stock prices and the post-Steve Jobs era of Apple. I picked up this book because I wanted to learn about Jony Ive and his design process and the stories behind my favorite Ive designs, not to hear someone else predict the future of Apple. In his final paragraph, Khaney actually calls on Jony Ive to reinvent Apple’s design language. Apparently it’s become “predictable”. You know, I was just thinking about how everyone more or less predicted exactly how iOS 7 would look.

All of this, to me, points to the unmistakable fact that this biography is premature. The products that Khaney goes in-depth on are older and less interesting. Ive is far from done and I hope his best work is still ahead of him. At the very least, his best work is his current work, and we won’t learn the stories behind these products for several more years, maybe a decade. Only then could we get a proper biography. You can safely ignore this one.


  1. Actually, the book itself is sort of gross-looking. The line-spacing is too tall and the text is set in an unappealing serif (the apostrophes and quotation marks are particularly unsettling) with headings in Avenir Next. Sans-serifs should never be used in printed books. In the case of Jony Ive, the use of the sans-serif combined with weird gray lozenges and pullquotes at the beginning of each chapter (see here) give the impression that this book belongs in an elementary school classroom. It’s an odd, almost intangible effect but I was not the only one who noticed it. I somehow doubt Jony Ive would be happy with his biography looking like this. ↩︎

  2. Khaney spends one paragraph noting iOS 7’s dedication to typography through the use of Helvetica Neue. He does not specify Helvetica Neue Light, and his writing indicates that he has no idea Helvetica Neue has been the system font on iOS since it went retina↩︎