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Behold! Jonathan Ive's Apple

With iOS 7 and the iPhone 5C, Apple signals that the company belongs not just to CEO Tim Cook, but also to its world-famous head of design.

Sir Jonathan Ive
Apple is today releasing the much-anticipated iOS 7, and with it, the biggest overhaul of its mobile operating system since it debuted in 2007 with the original iPhone.

Most of the talk has been about the design overhaul of the product, but really, the biggest change is not a product one, but a personnel one. The change not only affects this particular software update, but the identity of the company from here on out.

For the first time ever, Apple is releasing a software product that was led by the same person who leads industrial design: Jonathan Ive. And it's an integration that underscores how, increasingly, Apple is becoming Ive's company.

The iPhone 5C is the first product to be released with Ive at the hardware and software design helm. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

"This is something that has never been done before at Apple," said Matt Rogers, co-founder of the smart-thermostat maker Nest, remarking on the fact that one person is now in charge of the two very disparate departments. Rogers worked on software design for all of Apple's mobile devices until he left the company in 2010. "There's a public design philosophy at Apple and there's an internal one," he said.

The public philosophy, of course, is the familiar gospel we hear about minimalism and simplicity, white plastic and brushed aluminum. "The internal one is around just doing what Jony wants to do," Rogers said.

After a much-publicized executive shakeup in 2012, former iOS software chief Scott Forstall was famously ousted, and his duties taken over by Ive. Craig Federighi, who previously only led development for Mac OS, also took the engineering lead on iOS. The dustup between Ive and Forstall had been brewing for years, but it all came to a head after the release of the last iOS, when the newly designed Maps app tanked with users and got panned by the press. Cook issued an apology, and when Forstall refused to sign the letter, it "[sealed] his fate at Apple," Fortune reported.

The main design contention, though, had to do with the practice of skeuomorphism -- a design approach in which software interfaces mimic the look of real world objects. Forestall, a huge proponent of the practice, along with the late Steve Jobs, believed skeuomorphism was a necessary part of getting users acclimated to a digital software environment. That's why the Game Center app was meant to look like the green felt of a poker table, and the Notes app resembled a yellow legal pad.

The original iMac was the first breakout design for the Jobs-Ive duo. John G. Mabanglo/Getty

But, the thinking goes, as users have become more familiar with smartphones, such visual crutches are no longer needed. And Ive has been the advocate of a more modern, flat design. Last October, it appeared Ive had won that battle.

Ive joined Apple in 1992 and became head of the company's industrial design department in 1996, the year before Jobs returned to the company after being forced out a decade earlier. The duo's first breakthrough project together was the iMac, the colorful desktop computer that first made people take notice of Apple as a design company. Ive would go on to lead the design teams that created Apple's most seminal work, from the MacBook to the iPhone to the iPad. He was knighted at Buckingham Palace in May 2012.

Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that Ive had "more operational power" than anyone at Apple besides Jobs himself. Sure, it's unclear whether that's still true since Cook took the reins as CEO after Jobs stepped down two years ago. But what does seem clear is that it probably doesn't matter. As CEO, Cook is the face, the logistical leader, and -- unfortunately for him -- the occasional scapegoat for the company, but Ive is in charge of the heart and soul of Apple.

"Apple is a company that's very driven by an internal compass," said Robert Brunner, founder of the design firm Ammunition. Brunner also founded Apple's industrial design department and hired a young Ive. "What always makes really great stuff is when there is someone or a small group of people with the power to drive it. With Steve gone," Brunner continued. "I think [Ive] has taken that role."

Apple's iOS 7.
Ive led the Human Interface team behind iOS 7. James Martin/CNET

Ive's new responsibility overseeing user interface is the biggest sign yet that Apple is truly Ive's company now. This is not to impugn Cook. He is a talented conductor and chief executive. But Forstall was the only one with enough clout -- and desire -- to really challenge Ive's operational free reign over the Apple kingdom. And with Forstall gone, there is now even less push-back for Sir Jony.

"He's not just as important as Cook, but potentially more important," said Chuck Jones, founder of Sand Hill Insights, a technology research firm. He mentioned Cooks' comments during a conference call in April that the company has some important products slated to come out in the second half of this year and throughout 2014, which Ive is "obviously leading the charge on," said Jones.

Still, why take Ive, a celebrated industrial designer, and put him on software as well, as the head of a newly created human interface department? "He either stepped up and said, 'OK, I'll take a shot.' Or Cook said, 'You're the guy I trust,'" said Brunner. Having the same person run both software and hardware means both areas can share the same sensibilities, Brunner adds.

Nowhere is that sensibility more apparent than with the iPhone 5C, the so-called "low-cost" iPhone introduced last week in Cupertino (though the company has thus far been mum about how the product is performing). Nevertheless, the phone comes in a slew of colors that compliment the brighter hues of iOS 7's color palette. "You can see it in the new product. [The software interface and hardware] weren't designed in bubbles. It feels like a family," said Rogers.

But there's a caveat to the argument that Apple is Ive's company, and it's more sentimental than literal: to many, Apple will always be Jobs' company. "It really came from his heart," said Abigail Sarah Brody, a former Apple designer whose office was around the corner from Jobs'. "We designers -- and I consider Steve Jobs a designer -- are very sensitive to visual impressions. And in the end, Steve knew both worlds [hardware and software] so he made sure they related to each other."

Jobs called Ive his "spiritual partner" at Apple, which seems to imply a yin and yang relationship -- the quiet, sensitive Ive complementing Jobs, the sometimes brash natural showman.

Jobs called Ive his "spiritual partner" at Apple. Apple

But Ive is not without his streak of occasional Jobsian gruffness mixed with sincerity. One former Apple audio engineer recalled a presentation he had to make for Ive. The meeting was scheduled to be an hour long, and Ive was 45 minutes late. It was in a conference room with about 20 other people, including the engineer's direct manager. When Ive finally arrived, about three slides into the presentation, he stopped the engineer and blurted, "This is stupid. I don't understand." Rattled, but not deterred, the engineer stopped and took a moment to better explain what he had just been talking about. Ive perked up, interested, and stayed for an additional 40 minutes.

But perhaps the most convincing declaration that we are in the midst of a new Ive-led Apple comes from Ive himself. In the promotional video introducing iOS 7, Ive waxes poetic about the new design of the product. At the end of the video, he concludes: "With what we've been able to achieve together, we see iOS 7 as defining an important new direction, and, in many ways, a beginning."

Much has been written about how Apple has lost the ability to innovate. And Cook is often the brunt of all the jokes (brilliant as they are). But Ive was always the closest one to the Jobs aura, not Cook. So next time we ask the tedious question, "Can Apple still innovate?" -- and believe me, we will -- we might instead look to Ive for the answer.