The Man Behind Apple’s Renewed Focus on Engineering

2018 Touch Bar MacBook Pro keyboard membrane

Recent events at and products from Apple suggest that there’s a re-emphasized focus on engineering.

Background: There’s been a lot of analysis lately about the impact of Sir Jony Ive’s departure from Apple. Much of it points to Ive’s tremendous and genuine contributions and then speculates that things might not be so bad after all in the future.

But there’s more going on.

Notable Events

What stood out for me in this discussion was the confluence of several events.

2019 Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR.

First, we got the 2019 Mac Pro. So powerful and brutish in its engineering design that it quickly earned the title “cheese grater 2.0.” Who would have thought that Apple would have the courage to return to this design given Apple’s recent emphasis on form over function? And yet, there it is in all its hardware and computational glory, function over form.

And then we got the cancellation of the MacBook. Engineering analysis suggests that the ultra slim case design couldn’t make the move into more powerful CPUs/GPUs/memory and storage. It had reached a technical dead end. Beloved, it had to go.

2018 Touch Bar MacBook Pro keyboard membrane

And just recently, there are hints that the ill-fated Butterfly keyboard may be on the way out. Digital Trends writes: Evidence mounts that Apple will kill the MacBook’s butterfly switch keyboard.

That Apple is reconsidering the scissor switch is an interesting thing to note, given its previous assertions that the butterfly switch provides “four times more key stability than a traditional scissor mechanism.” But it’s also not surprising, given the many, many times Apple has tried and failed to correct the problems plaguing the [butterfly] design.

Real, Pleasing Change

These real and surmised changes are something we have been unaccustomed to. Namely, Apple has recently lingered on with some uncomfortable design decisions and products that have mystified us. My feeing is that it was the result of design adamance by Ive versus more pragmatic thinking by COO Jeff Williams resulting in a standoff. See a MacRumors’s report.

Apple COO Jeff Williams
Apple COO Jeff Williams

One thing that may have helped the cause of COO Williams was his guiding of the Apple Watch into a health and fitness focus, which has been wildly successful, and away from the original Ive focus on fashion. That could explain why the US$10K solid gold model quickly disappeared.

These engineering decisions by Apple that I cited above are most welcome and suggest that the company we’ve loved for its legendary industrial design is back on track with a special focus on performance and product-line coherence. For more color on this, see Tim Bajarin’s excellent analysis. “Industrial Design And Operational Excellence Drives Apple’s Success.”

There’s a seemingly new atmosphere of engineering pragmatism, without sacrificing great design, and I suspect it’s being spearheaded by COO Jeff Williams.

6 thoughts on “The Man Behind Apple’s Renewed Focus on Engineering

  • I hope that Apple will find the right balance between engineering and design. Apropos, in the equation should be entered also the pricing element.
    Hint: $1000 monitor aluminum stand.
    The gal/guy which decided to go this path is crazy!

  • I mostly agree with this analysis, although the product positioning of Apple Watch has had little to do with either engineering or design. That’s all about marketing.

    One very interesting new design element of Apple Watch 4 was clearly a result of the synergy of the design and operations teams.

    If one studies the Apple Watch 4 design, it is apparent that all of the surface blends have been improved to G3 curvature continuity versus G1 curvature continuity in the original design. This change makes the Apple Watch 4 significantly more pleasing to the eye.

    G3 curvature blends eliminate any noticeable reflective glare on the tangent lines between the curved and flat surfaces. This makes the shape look flawlessly natural, like a polished river stone. As a result, the Series 4 design looks organic, while original Apple Watch design looks manufactured. The effect is particularly awesome on the DLC Black stainless steel model.

    Most people won’t notice this design change consciously, but they feel it on an emotional level. I suspect that this design change alone is responsible for a large part of the boost in Apple Watch sales after the Series 4 was introduced.

    One can only assume that, due to the hardness of sapphire, Apple needed to invest in special manufacturing processes to achieve G3 curvature continuity for the cover glass in the Apple Watch 4. I suspect that the required grinding and polishing equipment did not exist when the original Apple Watch was designed and that Apple had to invent it for Apple Watch 4 production. This represents a major commitment to design, percolating through the entire supply chain.

    What’s most interesting about the Apple Watch 4 is that the G3 curve blends precisely match the blends used in the corners of iPhone app icons and in the corners of the iPhone X series displays. This is high level design work, pushing for total perfection of form.

  • Quite the opposite. Following the PC herd with the Mac Pro isn’t progress. Killing the obvious host for Apple’s own CPU isn’t progress – releasing an ARM version of the MacBook would be progress. Releasing new MacBook Pros with the old T2 chip, not an upgraded T3 to address 10-bit/HDR HEVC/RAW image acceleration, isn’t progress.
    These are very safe moves, the opposite of engineering focus.

    1. Sorry, english is not my native language, so I didn’t understand completely your statement. I’ll try to summarize, please correct me if I’m wrong.

      The expected T3 should be better as T2 due the better image acceleration?

      As I understand the Apple system, the image processing things should be done with Metal which has no relation to T chips at all, T’s are in charge for security matters.
      ARM chips vs. Intel processors: If an app is written specially for ARM processor is always faster as one written (generally) for Intel processor, seems that we agree on this.

      Its a long path to swap the processors, the best app makers don’t accept this Apple specific move, especially those which provide identical apps for macOS and WIN10 as Capture One for example.

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