The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy
Business & Economy

FAQ: What is 'skeuomorphic design' and the executive shakeup at Apple

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 07:  Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple product launch event. The successor to Steve Jobs is enduring his first major leadership challenge.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 07: Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple product launch event. The successor to Steve Jobs is enduring his first major leadership challenge.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast this week, but another storm blew through the West Coast, and it was centered in Cupertino, California, at Apple headquarters.

Two Apple high ranking Apple executives, Scott Forstall and John Browett, were shown the door. In both cases, it wasn't really a surprise. But it was clear evidence that, a year removed from Steve Jobs' death and with the company's stock price sliding by more than 100 points in less than two months, CEO Tim Cook is experiencing his first major leadership challenge.

Q: Why were Forstall and Browett asked to leave?

A: Browett is an easier departure to explain. He ran Apple's retail operations and had instituted some bizarre strategies since his arrival at Apple little more than six months ago. As Tim Worstall points out at Forbes, his background in British retail didn't fit with Apple's brand goals for its stores. Furthermore, he created a near revolt among the Apple Store's blue-shirted staffers. A lot of Apple observers were actively questioning why he was hired in the first place.

Forstall is a completely different tale of rise and fall. He fell prey to a classic workplace dynamic: His mentor and protector departed — or in this case, died. Worstall was reportedly very close to Steve Jobs, something of an heir apparent before Cook stepped in during Jobs' illness and took the company by the horns, leveraging its supply chain to generate huge profit margins, especially on the iPhone.

Forstall ran mobile software for Apple and was by all accounts a tough guy to work for and with — a contrast to the kinder, gentler Apple that the retiring, mild-mannered, by still rather steely Cook is trying to create. He had the misfortune to preside over two big fails: Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant that came with the iPhone 4S and Apple's Maps application, which replaced Google Maps on the iPhone 5 but met with immediate customer complaint and derision. Cook wanted Forstall to take the fall, signing an apology letter. Forstall said no dice, and that was that. Oh, and there was also the whole skeuomorphic design thing...

Q: What's skeuomorphic design?

A: You know how iCal has that sort of fake stitched leather detail running across the top? Or how the your book and magazine apps on the iPhone are arranged in a faux wood-grain bookcase? How about the green felt gaming table for iPhone and iPad games? Horrible, right? And all the result of skeuomorphic design — software design that "can be traced back to the visual metaphors designers created to translate on-screen applications before users were accustomed to interacting with computer software," according to Fast Company's Austin Carr, who wrote about this visual school of thought and how critics of its tackiness think it is something that Apple should do away with.

Steve Jobs liked skeuomorphic design. So does Scott Forstall. But the guy whom many now see as the new chief "decider" at Apple, product design guru Jony Ive, does not. Forstall obviously lost this argument.  Now Ive will get the chance to fully integrate and update the look, feel, and functionality of Apple hardware and software interfaces. 

Q: Is Tim Cook making the right moves here?

A: Cook is not the same type of leader as Jobs. Jobs was a visionary who could smell the needs of customers in the future. But he was also capricious and mercurial and all the things that, unless you have enormous patience for extreme behavior, you don't want in the CEO of a $600-billion market-cap company. Cook isn't a product innovator — his contribution to Apple has been with the critical behind-the-scenes stuff: building an impeccable, profit-driving supply chain and figuring out ways to extract profits from suppliers and wireless providers, adding them Apple's coffers.

Apple added billions in market cap following Jobs' death, intially defying the naysayers who insisted that Cook wasn't up to the CEO seat. But the company has now lost over a billion dollars. And as Cook knows, the first job of a the CEO of a public company — unless you're somebody like Steve Jobs — is to support the stock price. The idea that he had someone like Forstall in the company, saying that Cook wasn't capable of making critical decisions, was intolerable.

Q: But was Cook right to ask Forstall to take the blame for the Maps debacle?

A: Of course not. This was the first major failure of Cook's tenure as CEO. Remember all the trouble that Apple had back in 2010 with the launch of the iPhone 4 and that device's reception problems? Cook learned the right lesson:  You apologize and move on. But he didn't learn that you don't ask an underling, even one as influential as Forstall, to do the apologizing. Don't sit in the CEO's chair if you can't bring yourself to accept responsibility for everything that goes wrong.

Q: Is Jony Ive good enough to be a kind of new Steve Jobs, while Cook does what's he's really good at?

A: Ive has often been talked about as the most important Apple employee (in his native England, he was knighted for his contributions to industrial design). All Apple devices bear the stamp of his design vision. At the very least, he'll put an end to the skeuomorphic debate, most likely ushering in a less smiley faced era for Apple software.

However, it's important to remember that Apple is increasingly losing absolute control of the software, outside iOS, that runs on its mobile devices. Having developers develop like crazy for the iPhone is great, except that they decide how the software will look and feel and function. The Apple device becomes simply a beautiful vessel, an alluring facilitator. Jony can continue to exert incredible influence in the physical world. The virtual world is another story. 

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.