Jonathan Ive on the ethical implications of Apple's business

Posted by: Helen Walters on August 11, 2009

There’s been quite a flurry of excitement in the online media-sphere of late, after entrepreneur, CEO, some time journalist (and BusinessWeek columnist) Jason Calacanis published The Case Against Apple—in Five Parts. As you can imagine, much discussion has ensued since, with some hostile to any criticism of Apple’s way of doing business and some others apparently fanning their foreheads in relief that someone has dared to say that Apple isn’t perfect.

Much of the discussions concern Apple’s approach to the App store and its treatment of developers and would-be partners, seen by some as draconian and too-controlling. I was prompted to take another look at the transcript of the company’s Jonathan Ive speaking at a public event in London a while back. Toward the end of the hour-long discussion, an audience member asked Ive if Apple considered the ethical implications of its work before launching a product. It was a somewhat flippant question: “I live in an Apple household… It’s hard to engage my children in conversation these days,” which nonetheless addressed the serious and often unconsidered issue of a company’s impact on society at large. Ive was certainly discomfited: “I can’t think of a very good answer for that,” he said.

Then he rallied. “If you go back 15 years, it would have been hard to think we would be making the contribution we’re making now in the music space, in terms of how you buy music, how you listen to music,” he said. “The most important thing is I think we’re light on our feet, and we remain curious. We love learning about new stuff.”

In this context, it's a good reminder of how far the company has evolved since its computer-driven beginnings. Essentially, Apple is facing up to the ramifications of its own successful innovation. And the question now is how it can continue to scale and evolve its business in less familiar industries. Can the company really be light-footed (rather than heavy-handed), as Ive asserts?

In the past, Apple's closed loop of an ecosystem has been one of the most lauded attributes of the brand. Consumers loved the fact that someone had clearly anticipated their every need and thought about everything from retail store experience to product packaging to hardware form factor to user interface design. That painstaking, detailed, design-driven philosophy has served the company well.

Should it (can it) adjust that philosophy to suit the new reality of the virtual landscape? Does the digital realm really require an entirely different approach? We talk of the need for transparency in our 2.0 world. How can Apple apply those tenets while remaining true to its core brand?

For Ive, a key strategy lies in constant re-evaluation. "We’re so self-critical of what we do. We’re brutally critical," he said at the London event. "We don’t just stop and think 'that’s the phone done.' We’re looking to try and make it better." It'll be interesting to see how the company responds to the increasingly voluble criticism that's being addressed at it from outside of its own walls.

 

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