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Jony Ive leaving Apple signals the end of Steve Jobs era

From Apple TV Plus to its chief designer moving on, the iPhone maker is becoming a different company.

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Tim Cook (left) and Jony Ive (right) look at Apple's new Mac Pro desktop computer announced in June.

James Martin/CNET

When Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple's CEO in August 2011, people said it was the end of an era. The departure of Apple design chief Jony Ive, announced Thursday, is the latest sign of the new Apple.

For the past couple of decades, Apple has gone through one of the most dramatic resurgences in history. Its tale of dramatic rise under co-founder Jobs, its decline and near death after his ouster, and then its rebirth are the stuff of Silicon Valley legend.

Throughout that time, two names in particular have been credited with driving that success: Jobs, who returned to lead Apple again in 1997, and his right-hand man, Ive, whose design ethos has fueled a generation of sleek, minimalist products like the iPhone

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Ive and Jobs were close friends, bonding over frequent lunches and a similar sensibility for design. "We on the first meeting, in a quite shocking way, really did click," Ive said in a rare interview in 2017. "We just established an immediate understanding." That partnership helped turn Apple from near bankruptcy into a behemoth of industry, even before Jobs passed away in 2011.

The departure of Ive, whose soft, British voice introduced Apple hardware in countless sizzle reels, is the latest sign of major shifts within Apple. The company grew to become one of the world's most profitable and highly valued companies, worth nearly $1 trillion, on the back of the iPhone. But sales of the device have begun to decline, and though anyone would love to have Apple's problems -- a mere $58 billion in sales and $11.5 billion in profits, counted in the quarter ended March 30 -- it appears the age when hardware ruled everything has passed. 

Apple has begun openly discussing what's next.

The biggest sign of that change came at Apple's March event this year, when CEO Tim Cook discussed how the company was planning to launch a series of subscription services in the next year, including a magazine and news service (Apple News Plus), a TV and documentary service (Apple TV Plus) and a gaming service (Apple Arcade). Only Apple News Plus, at $9.99 per month, has been released, though the others are expected this fall. There was -- gasp! -- no hardware to be seen. 

The new Apple under Cook hasn't always been received well, and fans would frequently fret over how much the company was changing. They criticized Apple's Maps fiasco in 2012, they decried the bending iPhone 6 in 2014, and they complained about the problematic new keyboards in Apple's laptops.

Jony Ive and Tim Cook looking at iPhones.

Apple

But Ive's departure will be different, since he's signaled he'll continue working with Apple for years to come. His new design firm will have Apple as a primary client. And the company plans devices years in advance, ensuring the next iPhone, iPad or headset we see on store shelves will still have his fingerprints on it, even if he no longer has an Apple employee badge.

"While we think this development is perceived as a negative, we think any potential impact from Mr. Ive's departure should be manageable," Evercore analyst Amit Daryanani wrote in a note to investors.

And all of this hullabaloo doesn't mean the iPhone is over or that Ive's legacy is sealed. After all, each of these services are so tied to the device that Oprah Winfrey, while on stage announcing her own offerings for Apple TV Plus, reminded viewers that the iPhone is "in billions of pockets, y'all." It does mean, however, that Apple is changing.

Apple thinks different

While Apple's push into services will be a high-profile bet for the company in the coming years, it's not the only one. Other projects Ive has likely already contributed to include forthcoming new iPhones, like the one expected later this year with a new third back camera, as well as a new Apple Watch.

Apple's also working on a powerful wireless headset, people familiar with the matter told CNET last year. The device, which is designed to straddle augmented reality and virtual reality and is powered by Apple's own chips, is slated for 2020.

The iPhone maker also just acquired Drive.ai, a self-driving car startup that at one point was worth $200 million. The company's been rumored to be working on self-driving car technology, though some rumors had said the size of the team working on the project was reduced earlier this year

Where that all leaves Apple and Ive with his new one-foot-in-one-foot-out job is unclear. One thing for sure is that analysts and Apple watchers alike are treating Ive like a soon-to-be-former employee.

"This angle that he's still going to work with Apple as an independent design firm seems like pure spin," wrote longtime Apple commentator John Gruber. "You're either at Apple or you're not. Ive is out."

Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives agreed. "Ive is leaving a hole in the company and is clearly irreplaceable as he has been one of the most important figures at Apple throughout the past few decades," he wrote in a letter to investors. "His fingerprints are deeply woven within Apple's core DNA. The major question now going forward is around future product innovation with one of the key visionaries of the Apple brand gone."

The story originally published at 5:00 a.m. PT.

Update, 10:03 a.m. PT: To include additional background. 

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