What Apple's executive reshuffle means for the products you use

Apple's focus is as always on products, so here's what this week's exec changes could mean for the hardware, software, and services coming out of Cupertino

The executive shuffle Apple announced late Monday is the kind of drama that we in the tech press usually only get from watching Game of Thrones. But as interesting as it is from an inside-baseball perspective, it's worth remembering that Apple's focus is, as always, on products.

Who said what to whom and why so-and-so was shown the door makes for interesting scuttlebutt on tech websites, but that focus on office politics means very little to people who just want to have the best experience using their Mac, iPhone, or iPad. It's far more important to consider what Monday's maneuvers mean for the hardware, software, and services coming out of Cupertino.

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Humans first

While Apple's hardware in recent years has largely received rave reviews, the reaction has been more mixed for the company's software interfaces. Even as Apple's industrial design has veered more toward elegant combinations of aluminum and glass, the software user interfaces seem to have lost some of the consistency that was once their hallmark.

With Monday's announcement, the man responsible for much of Apple's hardware design since 1996, senior vice president Jonathan Ive, is now in charge of human interface -- design of both software and hardware -- for the company as a whole.

It's unclear what Ive, whose expertise is in industrial design, will bring to the software side of Apple. But as the late Steve Jobs once said "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Then again, the experience of using hardware doesn't always translate directly to software interfaces, as we've seen from Apple's often questionable fixation on skeuomorphic design -- think the stitched leather on the OS X version of Calendar and, more egregiously, the iOS version of Find My Friends.

There are some suggestions that Ive is less infatuated with skeuomorphism than outgoing iOS head Scott Forstall, but it also doesn't mean that every single Apple design choice the masses have questioned will be wiped away overnight. This is still a company that is not afraid of doing things its own way, whether users agree or not.

And keep in mind that, as with Jobs, Ive has his own missteps -- while he famously designed the first iMac, he's also credited (albeit after Jobs) with the design of that computer's infamous "hockey puck" mouse.

Still, if Ive has shown anything over the past ten years, it's that he values a marriage of form and function rather than simply emphasizing one or the other. He's also incredibly detail-oriented -- the asymmetric fan blades on the redesigned MacBook Pros comes to mind.

Apple's strength has always been about the intersection of hardware and software into one perfect widget, something that the company has ably accomplished with its iOS devices and most recent Macs, and it seems likely the company and its users will benefit from a unified approach to human interface.

Grand unified theory

With iOS chief Scott Forstall gone, his responsibilities have been scattered to the four winds. The bulk of it will be picked up by senior vice president Craig Federighi, who previously oversaw Mac OS X.

If Federighi is one of the less familiar names in Apple's pantheon, that's because he was only recently elevated to the company's executive team. However, he's played a crucial role in OS X for many years, and has effectively run the Mac software division since the departure of Bertrand Serlet last year.

Apple's been more insistent in the past couple years that iOS and OS X are essentially two sides of the same coin. Beginning with the Back to the Mac event of 2010, Apple has worked to bring features from iOS to OS X, and that's only intensified with Mountain Lion, which brought elements like iMessage, Game Center, and notifications to the Mac's operating system. Expect that trend of sharing to continue moving forward.

It also might mean more releases of the two operating systems in concert. iOS 6 and Mountain Lion appeared in close proximity this year, and among the highlights of the two were features that either appeared on both (Mail VIPs, Facebook sharing) or capabilities that emphasized the connection between Apple's mobile and desktop platforms (iCloud Tabs).

As with unifying its hardware and software experience, developing closer ties between its two major platforms is doubtlessly an important part of Apple's strategy in the years ahead, and putting both under the aegis of a single executive can help insure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

Service included

Services have never been Apple's strong point. From the company's eWorld online service of the 1990s to the last decade's revolving door of Internet offerings -- iTools, .Mac, MobileMe, iCloud -- Cupertino has taken a lot of flack, much of it earned, for unreliability and missing features.

There are, however, bright spots in the mix, particularly the iTunes Store and its affiliated App Store and iBookstore. (It doesn't hurt that they generate revenue at a healthy clip.) As such, it's no surprise that Monday's reshuffle saw two of Apple's lately problematic service-based features, Siri and Maps, assigned to senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue. Cue's no stranger to taking on damaged goods: He previously assumed control of both MobileMe and iAd after those services' somewhat lackluster launches.

Like MobileMe and iAd, Siri and Maps have both suffered severe criticism after their respective launches. Apple's virtual assistant was dinged for its unreliability in understanding people and its often limited capabilities; while the company has improved that somewhat in subsequent updates, such as iOS 6, many still see the feature as more of a novelty than anything else. (My colleague Lex Friedman would beg to differ.) The reaction to Apple's redesigned Maps has been even more vociferous.

Cue has his work cut out for him in dealing with these two, but he's probably the right person for the job. The major complaints for both Siri and Maps seem to be more focused on the service aspect than the software itself. In my own review of iOS 6, I found that the Maps app itself is well designed, with the failures residing mostly in the data that Apple had at its disposal.

Given Cue's experience in dealing with services -- and especially in arenas where Apple partners with other companies, such as publishers, music labels, studios, and so on -- it seems likely that we can expect to see both Siri and Maps improve their capabilities going forward. CEO Tim Cook said in the company's financial results call last week that Apple has already spent time and effort to bolster Maps, and that it won't stop "until Maps lives up to our standards."

Expect to see reliability at the top of the list as well. While iCloud still has mixed results in that department, the service's integration with Apple devices and its non-existent price tag have made it hugely popular; Apple's latest tally pegs iCloud at 200 million users.

Wires and waves

Nestled deep in Apple's Monday announcement was this tantalizing nugget:

Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple's wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level.

It's unclear exactly what falls under the purview of Mansfield's Technologies group, but the broader implications are clear: Wireless technology is perhaps the most key component of Apple devices going forward.

This is hardly a surprise to anybody whose watched Apple for the last few years, as the company's tendencies have leaned increasingly wireless. Look no further than the iPhone 5, which includes a staggering number of wireless technologies: GSM, EDGE, CDMA, EV-DO, HSPA, LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth. In fact, with the addition of Bluetooth to the revamped iPod nano, there's hardly a recent Apple product that doesn't include at least some form of wireless communication.

Add to that the development of multipurpose wired connectors like the company's new Thunderbolt and Lightning ports, and it's obvious that Apple's goal is to reduce the number of cables and wires needed for its devices.

With wireless technologies playing such an important part, especially for iOS devices, it's no surprise that Apple wants to devote more focus to them. The Technologies group will be able to develop and improve wireless across all of Apple's product lines, perhaps easing the ways in which those devices talk to each other. Given the improvements we've already seen, it's not hard to imagine a future where you needn't plug your mobile device into anything at all.

And lest we forget the second part of Mansfield's brief:

This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future.

Semiconductors are, of course, the foundation of the processors and chips that run all of our devices. While Apple's Mac lines still rely on processors provided by Intel, the company has been producing its own chips for its mobile devices since the original iPad. That and subsequent processors have resulted from Apple's purchase of PA Semi, a small semiconductor company.

Having its semiconductor design in-house has given Apple an even deeper level of control over its products -- at least, the mobile ones. And, going forward, it seems hard to believe that Apple will leave it at that. The Mac is still an important part of Cupertino's strategy, and with all the custom work that Apple has been putting into its hardware design -- the internals of the Retina MacBook Pros, for example, or the redesigned iMac -- it's not hard to imagine the company will want to eventually go that last nanometer and control the chips for its desktop and portable computers as well as its mobile devices.

Integrate to innovate

Looking over all the changes that Apple made to its executive team, there seems to be a pretty consistent throughline: This is all about integration. Integration of the various software platforms and teams, integration of the company's key technologies across product lines, integration of online services, and integration of the hardware and software user experiences.

All this integration mirrors exactly what Apple has tried to do with its products for decades now: Take a bunch of disparate technology, software, hardware, services, and so on, and combine it into one perfect device. After Steve Jobs's death, many described Apple the company as his most enduring "product." This reorganization suggests that Cook has taken that to heart while simultaneously putting his own definitive stamp on it.

This story, "What Apple's executive reshuffle means for the products you use" was originally published by Macworld.

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