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Mac Planet: Management on shuffle

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The iPad Mini is shown in San Jose, California. Photo / AP
The iPad Mini is shown in San Jose, California. Photo / AP

New Zealand seems a very long way from California, where Apple is based, sometimes, but every now and again we get a first - this time around, we're the first country in the world to get iPad 4 and mini on sale.

Meanwhile, in distant Cupertino, Apple seems to be shuffling more decks than one: not just the iPad and Mac lines, but top management staff, too.

Apple explained all this by talking about new responsibilities for current top managers.

Apple's vice president of retail John Browett is gone. Previously, Browett was CEO of Dixons, a UK retail electronics company apparently regaled for substandard customer service. Browett was always considered a surprising choice: once at Apple he promptly ignored advice about staffing levels and started making cuts and other changes.

When the word got out that he was effectively stripping Apple retail of its 'Apple-ness', the staffing order was rescinded.

Possibly this is one reason Apple's Annual Retail Conference was cancelled at short notice, but that's speculation.

Management changes echo the fact that Apple has to effectively recreate some products to correct a recent string of failures, most notably the iOS6 Maps debacle, but also difficulties with Siri (which I always considered a hugely ambitious enterprise).

So-called 'skeuomorphic design' has been roundly criticised. I would better characterise this as 'that horrible faux leather' look on Mac OS apps like Contacts and Calendar. Basically, it's making software look like real-world equivalents. Apparently, the impulse for this visual yetch was Jobs himself, but who knows?

Other examples abound - the Note apps looks like a yellow legal pad. In iOS, the Find Friends app is decorated with what's supposed to look like sewn leather. The new Podcasts app actually has a reel-to-reel tape playing as you listen (at least it looks like a Bauhaus-styled tape player). The Compass and Voice Memo apps appear as quasi-realistic compass and microphone. Game Center has a green felt texture with wood trim. The iBooks app looks like a wooden bookshelf ... not so bad in themselves, perhaps, but they all clash with the visual aesthetic of the minimalistic and clean-lined hardware that hosts them.

Of the staff to get the chop, the most significant is Scott Forstall. When Steve Jobs passed away, it was said that the main people at Apple each embodied significant aspects of Jobs: Cook was the details man, Schiller the engineer, Ive the designer - and Forstall was the evangelistic enthusiast.

Apparently he also had an ego to match not just the enthusiasm, but also the ego of the younger Jobs, at least. (The older Jobs did at least apologise for mistakes.) Cook apparently dismissed Forstall after he refused to sign a public letter to Apple customers apologising for the mapping software's flaws ... so Cook had to sign the letter himself. Ouch. Forstall oversaw the mapping software, not to mention Siri voice-recognition.

Those who worked for Forstall seemed to be loyal to him and certainly put in the hours; relationships with other management was a different matter. Several senior executives left Apple because they found working with Forstall difficult, according to former Apple employees. The mapping missteps were the final straw, people said.

As Bloomberg reported, "Forstall was effectively a component of friction in Apple's otherwise very collaborative senior management structure," said Charlie Wolf, an analyst at Needham & Co.

Apple shares dropped on the news,and dropped again once the New York Stock Exchange reopened after the storm, but concerns about Apple being able to maintain its competitive edge against Amazon, Google and Microsoft might be squashed once the iPad mini is on sale. If Apple reports strong initial sales of the iPad mini after the weekend launch, the stock price wil probably jump back up.

Executives Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, Bob Mansfield and Craig Federighi now all have to take on added management responsibilities, according to Apple, which may be a a good thing. Or not, since we can only imagine the workloads they were already carrying.

As for Jony Ive, he gets more power over the whole of Apple's device look and feel, as he also now has the responsibility for 'human interface', aka the software that governs how customers interact with their Apple devices. Before he died last year, Jobs controlled that experience, melding input from disparate teams. Forstall ended up somewhat in this space, but in the latest structure, it's definitively Ive, making him the creative integration point for both hardware and software. This was one of the more important roles Jobs played himself.

Craig Federighi is one of the less familiar names in Apple's top team. He was only recently elevated to the company's executive team, but before that played a crucial role in OS X for many years. He has been running the Mac software division since the departure of Bertrand Serlet last year.

Siri and Maps have been assigned to senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue, who previously assumed control of both MobileMe and iAd after those services' somewhat lacklustre performances.

He's most likely the right person for the job; the major complaints for both Siri and Maps seem to be more about the service aspect than the software itself, so we should expect to see both Siri and Maps improve their capabilities in future. CEO Tim Cook said in the company's financial results call last week that Apple has already spent time and effort to bolster Maps, and that it won't stop "until Maps lives up to our standards."

Bob Mansfield is to lead a new group called Technologies, which combines all of Apple's wireless teams across the company in one organisation, fostering innovation in this area at a higher level.

It's unclear exactly what falls under the purview of Mansfield's new Technologies group, but the broader implications are clear, since wireless technology is perhaps the most key component of current and forthcoming Apple devices.

What's missing from this team, you might ask? I hope it was as obvious to you as it is to me, and I think it's a serious issue: no women.

But for the rest, take heart, Apple fans - all the changes underline that Apple is at least focussed squarely on its products.

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