Design has been central to Apple’s formula since Steve Jobs, with help from Mr. Ive, revived the company in the 1990s. Putting Mr. Williams in charge marks a departure for Apple: Never before has core product creation been directly managed by someone who ascended through the operating ranks—a staid domain of planning, procurement and logistics.
Apple didn’t make Mr. Williams available for this article, but people who have worked with him say he has been more visible in the product-development process than Mr. Cook. Mr. Williams has shown interest in products’ look and feel, they said, and helped steer the Apple Watch from being a fashion- and fitness-focused product tethered to the iPhone to one that boasts wireless connectivity and more health features, one of his priorities.
Still, Mr. Williams is an operations executive at his core, the people said, and his skills at logistics and planning make him more implementer than inventor. “He sees where we are, not where we need to be in years to come,” said a former colleague, who also praised Mr. Williams’s leadership, versatility and encyclopedic memory.
Apple has sought to emphasize Mr. Williams’s involvement in product development, which encompasses research and development, as well as the business strategy behind bringing new products to life. His biography on Apple’s website was recently changed to read: “Jeff led the development of Apple Watch in close collaboration with the design team, and oversees the engineering teams responsible for Apple Watch.” Until late last month, that section read: “He also oversees the development of Apple Watch,” according to an archived version of the page.
Apple declined to comment on the change.
Some close Apple watchers say Mr. Williams’s new responsibility makes sense given the difficulty anyone outside the company’s executive team would face replacing Mr. Ive. His role entailed leading a team that helped conceptualize products and turn those ideas into elegant, functional physical forms, collaborating with software, hardware and operations divisions, said people familiar with the process.
Indeed, pressure is growing on Apple to find new product successes. Sales of the iPhone are sputtering, and strength in newer items including the watch and the AirPods wireless earbuds hasn’t made up the difference. In the latest quarter, sales in Apple’s wearables, home and accessories division—which also includes Apple TV and iPod and Beats products—totaled $5.1 billion. However, the total decline in iPhone revenue from a year earlier was $6.5 billion.
Apple Music and other services are growing quickly, but the company needs sustained hardware sales to keep the audience for that business growing.
“Phones have plateaued, so what’s the next vision?” said Sean Stannard-Stockton, president of Ensemble Capital of Burlingame, Calif., which sold its position in Apple in late 2018 after a decade as a top holding. “You could have looked at Jony and said: ‘He’s the soul of Steve Jobs.’ I just wonder about their ability to invent the future now.”
Mr. Williams will have a pair of deputies to help him with that effort, not to mention years steeped in the product culture that Mr. Jobs created. Apple last week named Mr. Ive’s former top lieutenant, Evans Hankey, as vice president of its legendary industrial design studio. Ms. Hankey, a product-design graduate from Stanford University, joined the industrial design team about 12 years ago and has managed the design studio for several years. She has shared in a host of product design patents over the years.
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Mr. Williams, who is 56 years old, also will oversee a team of software designers led by vice president of human interface design Alan Dye. A graphic designer who joined Apple’s marketing and communications team in 2006, Mr. Dye has largely led that team for more than five years.
An Apple spokesman declined to make Ms. Hankey and Mr. Dye available.
Mr. Williams, who received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University, shares much with Mr. Cook. Both earned M.B.A.s at Duke University, and both previously worked at International Business Machines Corp. —a onetime Apple nemesis. Mr. Cook preceded Mr. Williams as Apple’s chief operating officer before his selection as Mr. Jobs’s successor as CEO in 2011.
Mr. Williams’s involvement in product development has grown over more than a decade. After Tony Fadell, co-creator of the iPod, left Apple in 2008, Mr. Jobs put Mr. Williams on a leadership team with Mr. Ive responsible for developing the iPhone 4, said a member of the team.
Some engineers and designers questioned how a supply-chain executive from IBM could replace Mr. Fadell, this person said, but Mr. Williams quieted doubters.
The iPhone 4 featured a glass back instead of the plastic used on past models. During a thermal-engineering meeting, Mr. Williams probed the engineers with questions about how new materials would affect device performance, this person said. He also picked up the prototype to evaluate how it felt. “It was impressive for a negotiator, and spreadsheet guy, and it just came naturally to him,” this person said.
Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst with Creative Strategies, said Mr. Williams’s operations background could be an asset in his new role. “You need to have a balance between what is possible and what makes sense,” she said. “If everyone came at it from a design perspective, that may not lead to the best possible product.”
Mr. Cook, an industrial engineer who made his name perfecting Apple’s supply chain, sought to keep Mr. Ive happy over the years, in part with a pay package that far exceeds that of other top Apple executives, a point of friction with others on the executive team, people familiar with the matter say. Apple doesn’t disclose Mr. Ive’s pay. But people in the design studio rarely saw Mr. Cook, who they say showed little interest in the product development process—a fact that dispirited Mr. Ive.
.. Mr. Ive and Mr. Jobs often ate together, feeding off each other’s ideas. Mr. Ive could translate futuristic concepts into physical objects with simplicity and sophistication. Mr. Jobs was the inspiration and the editor needed to bring these ideas to life.
“Creative geniuses like Steve and Jony speak a mutual language, and they understand each other well,” said Millard Drexler, the former J.Crew Group Inc. CEO who served on Apple’s board from 1999 to 2015 and is now an investor and adviser to Alex Mill, a retail startup. “There was an enormous challenge that anyone would have had following Steve Jobs into that position.”
While Apple is often regarded as the quintessential design company a large part of their continued economic success is built on their supply chain. Tim Cook is the right person to ensure this key factor to Apple’s success. It’s not glamorous but for a global company like Apple it’s essential.