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Apple to lose key iPhone engineer

Greg Christie, who helped develop important features for the original iPhone, is leaving Apple later this year.

Kent German/CNET

Greg Christie, a vice president and engineer who played an important role in developing software for the original iPhone, is leaving Apple, dealing it a blow during a key time for the company.

Christie had headed up Apple's Human Interface team -- whose mandate is to develop easy to use and elegant software. For example, Christie's team created the iPhone's "slide to unlock" function and the ability to place calls from a contact list.

According to 9to5Mac, which cites anonymous sources, Christie's departure is mainly due to ruffling Jonathan Ive, who became Apple's head of both industrial and software design in 2012 after a major organizational shakeup. Previous to that, Ive was only the industrial design chief, but wrested control after Scott Forstall, then-iOS chief, was ousted.

Under this most recent reorganization, said 9to5Mac, Apple's software designers will now work directly under Ive, instead of SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi, who Christie has reported to. The report also said that the falling out between Ive and Christie stemmed from competing visions over how iOS 7 -- Apple's most radical redesign yet of its mobile operating system -- would look.

Sources close to the company disputed 9to5Mac's report, saying the relationship between Christie and Ive was fine.

Apple played down the rift, saying that Christie and Ive worked together closely. In a statement provided to CNET, a spokesperson said:

Greg has been planning to retire later this year after nearly 20 years at Apple. He has made vital contributions to Apple products across the board, and built a world-class Human Interface team which has worked closely with Jony for many years.

The shakeup comes amid a major legal battle between Apple and Samsung, in court again over alleged patent infringement from both sides. The saga dates back two years, with this latest installment -- currently in progress -- focusing on seven patents. Samsung claims Apple ripped off two patents, including tech that speeds up the data transmission process, and could have implications on Apple's video-chatting service FaceTime. Apple claims Samsung infringed on five patents, including Christie's "slide to unlock."

Christie has been a major figure in Apple's defense so far, taking the stand right after Apple's marketing chief, Phil Schiller. His role has been to emphasize just how innovative the iPhone was when it was unveiled in 2007. Apple, a notoriously tight-lipped company, even took the rare step of making Christie available to The Wall Street Journal and NPR for interviews, just before the trial began.

Apple argued that much of that innovation came from the phone's ease of use, creating a product for "normal people -- people with better things to do with their lives than learn how a computer might work," Christie said on the stand last week.

Updated, 5 p.m. PT: Adds Apple statement provided to CNET, as well as comment from sources.