Apple's Jonathan Ive and Craig Federighi: The Complete Interview

From left: Jony Ive, head of design and Craig Federighi, software chief

Photographs by Adam Amengual for Bloomberg Businessweek

From left: Jony Ive, head of design and Craig Federighi, software chief

Perhaps you’ve already read our cover story on Apple and its three wise men: Chief Executive Tim Cook, chief designer Jonathan Ive, and software head Craig Federighi. Perhaps you read the outtakes from those interviews and even the full transcript of the Tim Cook interview. Well, this is the last installment of our saga, the complete transcript of the Jonathan Ive/Craig Federighi interview (which has been partially edited for clarity).

To set the stage, this interview took place a day after the iPhone 5S and 5C launch event. I met Ive and Federighi in a ground-floor conference room in one of the buildings on Apple’s (AAPL) campus in Cupertino, Calif. Federighi was first to arrive, followed by Ive. In case you’re wondering, they’re both nice—not standoffish, not chilly, just nice. Federighi asked me if I had used Apple products and for how long, which began a conversations about carwash wages and an Apple IIC. Ive complimented my messenger bag, which, I must admit, I was sort of psyched about. Here’s what they had to say.

It’s been roughly a year since both of you were given sort of expanded portfolios. How has your day-to-day job changed in the past year?

Ive: It’s really changed more for Craig than it has really for me.

Federighi: Yes. If you look at the role that I had just prior to this, I was leading OS X and a lot of the common infrastructure that sits under OS X and iOS. You know, our graphics layers, our core operating system and kernel, and so forth.

I and my team were already engaged in iOS at one level of the system, and last year I started getting engaged in the rest of iOS. So it wasn’t coming in from the outside, in a sense, but taking on a different role in a team that I was already working with in a different capacity.

I think both Jony and I knew early on we wanted to do something big. We were both new to taking that task on together. And so, for the two of us together to figure out how we were going to accomplish this big thing was a new engagement for us, as well as bringing together some of the different disciplines that had been previously not working as close together. ID [Industrial Design] and HI [Human Interface] weren’t working together as much, and that became an intense collaboration, along with Engineering. These are teams that had a creative relationship going back a long time, but this became now a very intense relationship in the construction of iOS 7.

Ive: When you think about the roles changing, I think what happens is you think about this as the task at hand. So I don’t think we ever talked about our roles. We talked about how we can most effectively extend the collaboration that always existed.

I mean, for example, we sit a minute away from each other. Now that didn’t just change. We always have. And the design community as a whole is a closely knit one. I mean, again, Craig is looking at the HI team, and my team, again, we’re a minute away from each other. But I think what we manage to do is give them the task at hand and the project that we wanted to collaborate on. That becomes the all-consuming focus.

I think that when you have a focus that’s that clear, what could be barriers sort of real or virtual would—in effect, just [waves hands in a dissipating gesture]. And it’s not even a conspicuous fading away—it’s just you’re so consumed by sort of trying to do something as well as you possibly can and enjoying the broad collaboration.

Federighi: I think to your point, these were groups that all had existing relationships, but suddenly because the mission for iOS 7 became so clear and so critical that everyone who needed to contribute jumped in and did [it] with great intensity. So we found ourselves working maybe more with the people we had all worked with in the past.

Ive: You know, the design studio is a sort of fairly self-contained physical space, but it’s a real hub for collaboration. I mean, I’m talking for 15, 20 years. But I have always found—and I know the ID team has always found—that the discoveries you make when you are lucky enough to sit next to somebody who represents a completely different expertise, those discoveries can be really profound, and they’re really exciting.

So there is a rule, a sort of propensity we have to intertwine work with people that represent very different areas of expertise. And I think that’s one of the things at Apple that’s really special. There are just an awful lot of really, really smart people. And as we talked about here, the experience here—whether by intention or not—our experience of a product is the combination of hardware and software. Whether it’s intended or not, it is. It’s just going to be that way.

So I think we had an awful lot of intent to try and very carefully make that experience the best that it could be. I think yesterday, I think people partially got a view of iOS 7 in … was it June?


Ive: And I think yesterday the whole story starts to emerge. Of course, it’s not the complete one. We didn’t stop working months ago, but it’s the beginning. You know, it’s the beginning of the story.

As you mentioned, you sit within a minute of one another. Working together, how does that happen on a day-to-day basis?

Ive: It’s not formulaic, so it’s frustrating to try to describe, but it’s actually really quite nice to practice. Sometimes there are times when we’ll be working in either the design studio together downstairs with the broader team brainstorming, or other times we’ll be in other rooms closer to Craig where we’re reviewing things. But it’s very fluid, and it depends on the nature of the problem that we’re trying to solve or other stuff that we’re trying to create.

Federighi: It’s not so formal, I think, is the truth. It’s very driven by what we were working on as a team at any given point in time and the nature of how both Jony and I are involved in the product is very directly on the substance of the product.

So at any given day, we’re looking at “what’s the behavior of the home screen?” or the log screen, and we’re together talking about it and we’re in the company of various designers and engineers who are also part of that discussion. But it was throughout the release and an ongoing set of semistructured discussions to work through all the different design issues, to review. We would prototype. We would review how it felt. Did it really work in the way we hoped it did once it was in our hands? We would get versions of it that we would live on, and then we would get together and we’d say, “I’m using it and I like this, but this bit is not coming together quite the way we wished,” and we’d iterate. So a lot of those conversations are just driven by perfecting the product together.

Ive: It’s interesting. Successful collaboration, in your mind, could be that your opinion is the most valuable and becomes the prevailing sort of direction. That’s not collaborating.

Somehow, because our products are used by more than one person, you don’t accept “OK, there is this polar opinion and this opinion,” because basically then what can happen—and I have seen this in other places—what can happen is that energy then is spent in the debate, rather than the belief that, you know what? We have an ambition that is real because we believe there is a solution. There is an idea that actually transcends that debate.

Can you give me an example of what you were just describing?

Federighi: We can talk about the parallax [effect, which gives iOS 7 a 3D-like appearance]. I mean, that’s an interesting case of kind of a journey we were on to get to something that everybody loved.

Ive: The parallax is a nice example. One of the things that we were interested in doing is, despite people talked about this being “flat,” is that it’s very, very deep. It’s constructed and architected visually and from an informational point of view as a very deep UI, but we didn’t want to rely on shadows or how big your highlights could get. Where do you go? I mean, there is only so long you can make your shadows.

It wasn’t an aesthetic idea to try to create layers. It was a way of trying to sort of deal with different levels of information that existed and to try to give you a sense of where you were.

But the idea of how we could create this sense of depth, that was just the most phenomenal collaboration which required everything from motion graphics to sensing in the hardware to the most remarkable sort of algorithms from a software point of view.

Federighi: And it was something that I think early on we saw the promise of the idea, and as we first tried it out, there were hints that it could work, but also a number of places where it’s like maybe this isn’t quite working, but there was this perseverance to say, “Let’s keep solving these hard problems and getting the sensors to give us what we need.” Others were like, “How can we do the optimizations and the power to make sure we can do this effect, but not strip its battery life.” There were all kinds of visual details to how we made it work.

So it was pulling in from many, many disciplines, and we kept getting together, and looking at it, and perfecting it. We had HI designers working with the engineers on tuning endless parameters to get it, and then we had it. You know? But as Jony says, it’s a nice example because I think it’s so front and center in the experience of iOS 7. But I think you could look at so many other places throughout the product and say it’s pretty much the same story.

Ive: I feel that it’s lovely when as a user you’re not aware of the complexity. I think we feel our job is to try to solve tough, difficult problems, but we don’t make the complexity of the problem apparent in its resolution. I mean, there are so many examples of objects or solutions or software where they solve difficult problems, but goodness, it’s really clear how difficult the problem was they’ve solved.

What I think we’ve tried to do is not make it obvious, but just try our best to solve some of these problems. I mean, I—the complexity behind these blurs that move—you have no idea. And it would have been so easy and completely reasonable for many teams just to say the cost here is too high.

I think it was that sense of sharing the same sort of ambition and just keep pushing. Because one thing I think happens is that it’s very easy to assume, with the benefit of hindsight, that this was all inevitable. But there are many times when you’re developing something that’s challenging or difficult, there are many times when you can basically sort of acquiesce and give up.

And it takes a real—it takes a real focus and determination. I think that always happens when it’s shared. There are times when I think either one of us or members of the team can feel discouraged. So I think that’s one of the things that’s fantastic working in groups. When you really think this can’t be solved and perhaps we’ve got too ambitious here, it’s fantastic when you’ve got other people round you to keep you going.

Federighi: And that deep set of really smart people in every discipline to solve the really hard problems that come up along the way. I mean, in realizing one of these design concepts, sometimes we were down optimizing things in the GPU as to how we could execute the blur efficiently.

Ive: You know, that’s a really great example. At the end of the day, when you have been part of a team, getting to work with engineers working at that level or then can work with engineers who have been working on the gyro test, but we’re all trying to sort of deal with the same problem. The fact that we’re all united, that we are genuinely focused on trying to solve the same problem, I think those are the days that you go home feeling what a privilege it is to work at Apple.

And you don’t do it because you like this idea of collaboration. You do it because you really like the idea of trying to solve difficult problems and make better products. And collaboration is actually a requirement. But there are other consequences that I think are just fabulous.

Federighi: I think it’s a unique statement about Apple’s values in product development that it is taken as a given among everyone on the team that we will go to the most absurd lengths seemingly to get something just right, to solve, to do the level of architecture work that normally would constitute the most critical element of a product, but we’ll focus that amount of energy and more to say, “That blur has to be just right. That detail has to be just right.”

Whether it’s the engineers or the HI designers, they understand that there is no questioning why we are putting so much effort into something that seems small. Of course, that is the right solution, and we are going to put all the energy necessary from the smartest people we have to get it right. And I think we see that in every member of the team across so many areas. I think you just do that over and over again, and you get a different result.

Ive: The other thing we’ve talked about is that I think, very often, you can’t call out by attribute or name areas of value. But I do think that we sense when somebody has cared. And one thing that is incontrovertible is how much we’ve cared.

But I think that when you use a product where there has been just tremendous care taken with its development and finally where it ends up, you may struggle to say, “Why might you like it?” But I do think that people know. They know about its biography at some level. They know what it took to get it there.

Apple doesn’t just introduce new products. It teaches people how to do new things: touchscreens, downloading music, even going back to the mouse and the Mac. How do you teach people through products?

Ive: When we were first working together—and this is a great example of collaboration from many, many years ago—but on multi-touch. That was originally intended for what was to become the iPad.

But I think one of the things that became clear was that we would need to try to explain the value of a whole new method of interaction and a whole new category of product. So one of the reasons that we focused on the phone was that there was no persuasion necessary to describe the value of the phone. You know, it was a market that existed, and people knew about the phone.

I think that’s a nice example of bringing to bear that solution to a set of problems that people were already familiar with. I mean, nobody liked their phone, did they?

Federighi: I think we understand where our users are in some sense. I think as we looked at iOS 7, we saw some of the physical analogies in the existing user interface that were part of getting people comfortable working on glass, and we understood that people had gotten through that. We didn’t need to use these very literal physical analogies for them to interact with their phones or to interact with the touch screen.

So in that sense, I think there probably was a change from when we first considered what an interface would be like for a touchscreen device to starting iOS 7 and realizing that the world had moved. But at another level, I think if you look at the success of iPhones and iPads, even with near infants—I mean, toddlers operate that product—it’s less a matter of us thinking how you teach someone to use those devices and as much making the animations, making all the affordances such that you don’t have to strictly teach them at all.

I mean, I think when you look at even a folder that you keep popping in and out of, the animation just said that I just zoomed into that, and if you wanted to get back, you’re just going to go to the area that was around it.

Ive: Where was the close button?

Federighi: There was no close button. How do you teach that? You pick the right sort of visual architecture, the right layering, and then it’s intuitive. People without thinking are going to do the right thing. I think so many of the interactions you see in touch in terms of pinching to zoom and how things move around, it was all about that there was no education necessary, that your things behaved as you would expect in your ordinary life.

And so what was critical to us is to achieve that effect. But this turned into a very significant technical problem: There was a maniacal focus on low latency and frame rate, because if you were going to interact with something under glass and move, it needed to move with your fingers as if you were moving it.

If that became laggy, separated in time, your own mental model for what you were doing would be broken, and suddenly we’d have a much more complex interaction problem to solve for the user. But if we could solve all the problems of the latency and the touch screen, the hardware problem, the speed of the graphics to move it, then suddenly we didn’t have to teach you because we created something that you could process intuitively. We tend to think how can we make it so effective that there is nothing to teach.

You have to master complexity to make things uncomplicated.

Federighi: I think that’s a unique talent among folks here. If you think about it, so many of the people here are so capable of dealing with complexity, so capable of operating complex tools that something could be simple, or at least workable in their eyes because of their capabilities, but that wouldn’t be very appropriate for the average person. And yet our best people, despite their own facility for navigating complexity, also have a natural gravitational pull toward simplicity and understanding what’s intuitive and continually returning to those solutions.

Ive: It’s also good that we have team members who are also not good at dealing with complexity. [LAUGHTER] I’m just saying.

Federighi: It’s a critical element of collaboration.

So there are natural balances?

Ive: I think there are. I had not thought about Craig’s point before—the fact that there are these guys with incredible technical prowess who absolutely could deal with complexity but won’t stand for it, won’t tolerate it. It’s interesting they have a zero tolerance for it, even though they are these completely intimidating individuals who have that sort of technical capability. It’s fantastic, isn’t it?

Let’s switch topics a bit. What it’s like to work for Tim?

Ive: I worked with Tim since he joined Apple, so we’ve worked together for a very long time. We evolve the ways we work together. We have certainly been ambitious with the objects that we wanted to make, and we have been ambitious with the volume that we want to make them in.

So the innovation—if you look at the Ops [Operations] teams, that was the team Tim previously led. The innovation and product focus of those teams are second to none.

I mean, I remember years and years and years ago with Tim working on some portable products that just completely demanded a different approach to how we were manufacturing the materials that we used. The entire supply chain had to be completely rethought, re-architected. It was as creative a process as any that I know.

So we’re working together in the same way. I think Tim has been incredibly supportive and understanding the nature of the problems that we’re facing. And he encourages the sort of collaboration and teamwork necessary to solve those problems.

Federighi: There’s an analogy here: Oftentimes, a product’s design requires manufacturing to solve unreasonable problems. That’s the same as engineering a user interface design. Both are about just solving these crazy problems. But you never get a sense from Tim or from Jeff [Jeff Williams, Apple’s current operations chief] that there’s a question about why are we solving this. Why aren’t we taking an easy way out and sidestepping this problem? It is, “No, this is the right design, and we’re going to do things that no one else in the world has ever tried to do in order to get it right.”

I think Tim absolutely resonates with those values. I think of Tim first and foremost as almost a beacon for Apple’s values. I think Tim understands intuitively how what we do here is the product of so many disciplines working so closely together. And he does everything he can to foster that happening to create great products.

Ive: That’s an interesting point, though. I mean, you could spend 60 percent of the time actually debating the virtue of why are we doing this. And I think one of the characteristics of Apple is that, if we’re faced with a hard problem—and the product is the culmination of many hard problems solved—if we face the hard problem, we don’t spend time debating why are we doing this. You know, the virtue of solving it. We spend all of our time just like trying to solve the problem.

If we’re talking about how do you put sensors over a display that don’t in any way compromise the optical quality of the display, that’s a problem that everybody would say, “Oh well, that’s a huge one, and that’s a big obstacle to try to get multitouch to work.” You know, within that there were probably 40 or 50 subsets of problems to solve there. Initially it looked like perhaps this is a dopey idea. The touch idea is a great example of something that we have been working on for a long time that so many people needed to work on. And to get it to work was incredibly challenging.

Federighi: Not to mention literally driving custom security processors into the silicon of our chip.

Ive: We did. I mean, I honestly understood only part of this. There are so many problems that need to be solved to enable this one big idea. This just is remarkable when you explain it—because I can’t. [LAUGHTER]

Federighi: Well, I mean, just to the broad point that you decide you want to do something like, “wouldn’t it be great if you could use your finger to unlock your phone or to make a purchase?” It sounds like a simple idea. But how many places could that become a bad idea because you failed to execute on it? We thought, “Well, one place where that could be a bad idea is somebody who writes a malicious app, somebody who breaks into your phone, starts capturing your fingerprint. What are they doing with that? Can they reuse that in some other location? Can they use it to spoof their way into other people’s phones?”

Well, that would be worse than never having done the feature at all if you did those things, right? And so you take that all the way to that spectrum, and we said, “My gosh, we’re going to have to build in our silicon a little island, a little enclave that’s walled off so that literally the main processor—no matter if you took ownership of the whole device and ran whatever code you wanted on the main processor—could not get that fingerprint out of there. Literally, the physical lines of communication in and out of the chip would not permit that ever to escape. It was something we considered fundamental to solving the overall problem.

Ive: When developing silicon, I think it’s probably the longest schedule that we work with. So you get to sense then if something as fundamental as that was architected into the process for the 5S, how long we have been working on this.

We never would, but we could just stack up feature after feature after feature that would make for a long list but would make for a completely un-useful phone. This was something that I think we all felt was a very useful feature, and we started with a desire to solve the problem. We didn’t start opportunistically with 10 bits of technology that we could try to find a use for to add to our features list.

One last question: What’s Apple’s mission?

Ive: This is probably a clumsy definition, but I think we try to make tools for people that enable them to do things they couldn’t without the tool. But we want them to not have to be preoccupied with the tool.

One of the ironies is that, from a design point of view, we feel that we’ve done our job when you finally get to that point and you think, “Well, there couldn’t be a rational alternative.” It appears inevitable. It almost appears like it wasn’t designed. Then we feel like we got it right, which is sort of semi-ironic, as a design team, to not make you feel like it was designed. But that’s what we try to do.

Federighi: I would have a hard time saying it any better. I would just say that I have been profoundly influenced by Apple’s technology since I was a little boy. I think it made me and all of us smarter, enabled us to achieve things we wouldn’t have otherwise achieved, has helped us communicate with people in a more fluid way that enriches our lives, and I think all along the way we do it in ways that enhance people’s lives instead of frustrate them, instead of making them feel stupid.

I mean, honestly, how many times do you buy a piece of technology that in the end just frustrates you? It’s something you bought to enhance your life, and instead you’re fighting it. And I think we aspire to move people forward in a way that they love.

OK, I’m a technology freak, but I think probably if someone mapped my brain, you would find that there were moments when I lit up the love pattern in my neurons in association with our products. I mean, literally, there is love, and I think that is true of many of our customers. I think when we build something we love and that others love, then we have done our job.

Ive: Our products are often at those times and those places that are meaningful to us, aren’t they? They are there when we communicate. They’re there when we take photos. They’re there when we look at the photos. They’re there when we listen to music. These are sort of seminal points in our lives, aren’t they? I think we try to create objects and products that enable those and enhance those connections. But you can’t do that in a way where the object is wagging its tail in our face.

Grobart is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @samgrobart.

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