What Happens If Apple’s Lead Designer Moves to London?

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Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Giles Turnbull, a technology writer in the UK.

The thing that’s got Apple-watchers all hot and bothered today is the speculation around the rumor surrounding the gossip over the single newspaper article that suggests that Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead designer, might – or might not – leave the company.

As with so many Apple-related stories, this one exists because of the computer company’s tight-lipped silence on everything except its current products. The vacuum of official news, combined with the unstoppable expansion of Apple into the lives of millions of new customers, creates perfect conditions for non-news to thrive.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times published a piece (helpfully tucked away behind a pay wall, so we can’t link to it) claiming that Ive’s wish to move back to the UK for the sake of his children’s education was causing a rift with Apple.

Let’s assume, just for argument’s sake, that Ive did decide to leave. Would that really be “Apple’s worst nightmare,” as the UK Guardian put it this morning? Not necessarily.

Ive is not the entire Apple design department. It’s not hard to imagine that he has a team of minions, whose design thinking has been influenced and directed by Ive and Jobs over the last decade (Ive started working for Apple in 1992, don’t forget).

Just as Tim Cook was there to step into Steve Jobs’ shoes when Jobs took time off to focus on his health, so Ive must have people ready to take on his job when the time comes.

Not everyone here in the UK buys the Sunday Times story, and amid the re-tweeting and blog posting, there’s a healthy sprinkling of skepticism. Jonny Evans at Computerworld points out that Apple is the company that brought us FaceTime video calls, an excellent tool for remote workers. “Surely it might be worth finding a compromise deal? It wouldn’t hurt to try,” he writes. Consultant Benedict Evans amusingly suggests that a trans-Atlantic lead designer might be just the thing encouragement Apple needs to give MobileMe an overhaul. On the other hand, Geek magazine T3 wonders if Ive’s departure would mean the end of “Apple’s desirability factor.”

There’s no doubt Ive has been a vital component in Apple’s recent resurgence. It is his vision, and his Jobs-like attention to detail,that was key to the shape, form and function of the first iMac, the first iPod, and all their descendants.

The key quote from the original Sunday Times article (helpfully tucked away behind a pay wall, so we can’t link to it) is this, and it reads oddly if you ask me:

“He is just too valuable to Apple and they told him in no uncertain terms that if he headed back to England he would not be able to sustain his position with them.”

Most companies, presented with someone whose contributions were simply “too valuable” would bend over backwards to make sure that person remained a happy employee.

Apple’s only public response as this story has swept the headlines was to dismiss it as “speculation.” Pretty good summary, really.