What’s Jony Ive Been Doing?

Sir Jony Ive, senior vice president at Apple
Sir Jony Ive, senior vice president at Apple

Photograph by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

Here’s a question that’s been lingering in my mind since it became clear that the new iteration of the iPad would basically look the same as the iPad 2—what is it that Sir Jony Ive, the world’s most famous industrial designer, has been doing lately?

When it turned out that Apple would produce an iPhone 4S in an identical case to the iPhone 4, a lot of pundits immediately pronounced it a disappointment. Apple’s supporters noted that it had all-upgraded internals and were vindicated when it turned out to be a monster success as a product. The new iPad is even more clearly an upgrade with its high-resolution screen. But it is true that Apple is famous in part as a company that doesn’t just engineer software and chips but designs macroscopic physical objects that look cool. The original iteration of the MacBook Air, for example, was kind of a dud as a product (more recent iterations are great, and I use one every day), but it had that iconic look from the beginning that now Windows laptop makers are scrambling to imitate under the Ultrabook heading. Yet at this point it seems like it’s been forever since Apple revamped the look of one of its main product lines. They’re succeeding with this strategy, so maybe I shouldn’t expect anything different, but that kind of stagnation would be surprising to me. Just like in the world of fashion, in any design space there’s never a stable, one best design. You can’t patent your basic look, so if you stick with it too long imitators come out of the woodwork and suddenly your products look generic. Quality design needs to be always changing and always innovating—churning, the skeptics would say—to stay ahead of the less-innovative brands. So I have to believe there’s either some major revamp of the basic look of something in the works, but no one in the tech press seems to be talking about this.