For Apple, change could be a good sign

Scott Forstall

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My transition to iTunes 11 hasn’t exactly been a smooth one. I’ve been using iTunes as the music player on my Mac every day for more than a decade, and in all that time it has pretty much looked and behaved the same way. The newest version is a radical rethink, and at first it left me confused and unhappy.

That’s not an indictment of iTunes 11. (In fact, I’ve found a lot to like about it … along with quite a few things to complain about.) Really, any rethink of iTunes was going to make me unhappy, because it represents a major change to something familiar. Change is hard, and most of us dislike experiencing it.

But change is also inevitable—and, in the end, refusing to change is worse, because change will just keep on happening around you, whether you like it or not.

The design of iTunes 11 was under way long before Apple made its recent changes in its management structure. Even so, the departure of Scott Forstall from Apple leadership is, like the release of iTunes 11, a sign that Apple is in the throes of some major (and probably quite painful) changes, especially where Forstall’s bailiwick, iOS, is concerned.

In general, I’m a proponent of change. Yes, I was comfortable with the old iTunes, but it was also old and inflexible, and probably in need of a long, hard look. The result might be better or worse than what came before, but doing nothing at all guranteed a lengthy, slow slide into irrelevance.

That’s why I’m optimistic that the dismissal of Forstall to tend his garden might be just the shake-up that iOS needs. In the operating system's nearly six years of existence, Apple hasn’t really rethought any of iOS's major features. We’ve seen the continual addition of new features, but very little has disappeared to be replaced by something utterly new. iOS is pretty good, but that stasis is odd, and perhaps even a little self-delusional on Apple's part: Nothing is inviolably perfect, especially on the first try.

With Forstall—a major driver of iOS development since its inception—out of the picture, it strikes me that this is a chance for new people to make different decisions and to take things in a new direction. Good or bad, it’s at the very least an opportunity for change.

Michael Lopp, a writer I respect, argues that this personnel decision might mark the end of Apple’s golden era. Forstall has often been called Steve Jobs’s protégé, someone who had a very Jobs-like approach to his work. Like Jobs, he has accumulated strong supporters and detractors among his former colleagues. Lopp suggests that although Forstall’s management style may have created internal strife, that strife led to innovation and change.

Lopp could be right. Eventually the first will be last—Apple’s failure is as inevitable as our deaths and the expansion of the sun into a red giant. And perhaps Forstall’s departure will hasten Apple’s end.

But isn’t it just as possible that Apple’s shake-up is exactly what the company needs right now? Lopp may be correct in saying that the new Apple might foster executives who are less likely to fight for what’s right; but then again, maybe the new structure will make it easier to slaughter some sacred cows.

In fact, when I heard word of Forstall’s departure, the first thing I thought of was something Steve Jobs himself said:

Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Life is change. You can’t avoid it, no matter how hard you try. The best way to cope with change is to welcome it and to keep moving forward.

Apple’s great success during the past decade makes the company awfully hard to criticize, whether you’re on the inside or the outside. And much of that success has come from Apple's decision to embrace change rather than run from it. So perhaps the removal of Scott Forstall will lead to an exciting era of change for iOS.

Then again, maybe we don't have much to worry about on that score. Even as Apple sits at the top of the tech industry, Tim Cook has taken the guy who was responsible for his company’s most important software asset and shown him the door. You have to give Cook credit: He’s not afraid to mess with success.

In the end, I’m not afraid of Apple changing. On the contrary, I’m concerned about it becoming complacent. But given the company’s moves during 2012, it’s hard to accuse Apple’s CEO of resting on his laurels.

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