You may not have heard much of Jeff Williams, but he’s Apple’s super fixer, the man behind the success of the Apple Watch and, some say, the next CEO. But is he the best candidate to write Cupertino’s next design chapter?
Compare Wikipedia entries for Jony Ive – Apple’s outgoing chief design officer – and his de facto successor Jeff Williams and the contrast is stark. Ive’s detailed entry is more than 2,000 words long. Williams’s is 104. Just one paragraph.
Yet, despite there being comparatively very few profiles or pieces on Williams since he joined Apple in 1998, he has had a significant impact on product development at Apple. In fact, until recently he’s been something of an unsung hero.
Promoted to chief operating officer in December 2015, Williams is the guy who gets shit done at Apple. He makes sure products are made and shipped on time, and to the company’s typical high build standards. Described by Fortune back in 2011 as “Tim Cook’s Tim Cook”, as he does much of what Cook did when he was COO, Williams negotiates billion dollar deals and manages the company’s mind-boggling complicated supply chain and production processes, including overseeing relationships with suppliers such as Foxconn, Corning and Hynix.
He may not have the art school credentials, or perhaps a cool bone in his body; he may have worked for IBM in operations and engineering roles with a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA, but the move to give Williams a wider design brief now Ive is (technically) leaving Apple, placing him in charge of an experienced team of designers, actually makes sense.
First, not much is really changing. Nobody else at Apple will be taking Ive’s title of chief design officer, and it seems clear that the brand will be leaning very heavily on Ive’s new LoveFrom design company for the foreseeable future. Apple will be the new firm’s first client and, to stabilise things further, LoveFrom will even be based inside the Ive-designed Apple Park. In short, Ive’s impeccable taste, design principles and rigour will be on hand for years to come. Second, Williams is in charge of one of Apple’s most successful products in recent years – the Apple Watch.
According to research firm Asymco, Apple is now the world’s biggest watchmaker. In 2017 its revenues eclipsed those of Rolex. What makes this remarkable is that Apple isn’t a watchmaker per se. What makes this even more remarkable is that Apple wasn’t even making watches until 2015. So successful has this product been that it arguably saved the lacklustre smartwatch sector, and, in effect, legitimised the market. It is the best looking and performing product in its class by a country mile.
Apple Watch shipments increased 49 per cent in the 2019 Jan-March quarter year-on-year, according to Counterpoint Research. Apple has never disclosed specific Watch sales, but its “Wearables, Home, and Accessories” category set a new March quarter revenue record of $5.1 billion (£4b). Notably, this success came with the backdrop of falling iPhone sales.
Speaking of iPhones, it’s Williams’s involvement in the first iteration of Apple’s smartphone that tells a story as to how valuable he has been to the company. Look down at your iPhone now, if you own one. In part it is because of Williams’s ability to deliver that it exists at all. Giving an address at Corning’s Harrodsburg facility in Kentucky in 2017, the company that makes the Gorilla glass for the iPhones, Williams revealed that the original iPhone was designed with hard coated plastic on the front, the same kind used on the company’s iPods that at the time had the little screens.
“When Steve held up the iPhone to introduce it to the world we’d only made a couple and he was holding up one that we designed with hard coated plastic on the front,” Williams said. “The intro went wonderful, but then he called the next day and said everything is great except for one problem. He said, ‘I’ve been carrying this thing around and it scratched in my pocket. I don’t know if it is my keys or what it was, but it scratched. We need glass.'”
Williams explained that he’d been looking at doing that very thing and reckoned that within three to four years the technology may evolve to offer a glass screen on the iPhone. Job replied: “No you don’t understand, when it ships in June it needs to be glass.”
Despite his reservations, Williams duly went off and spoke to Corning who sourced some prototype glass they had sitting on a shelf in their R&D department. “It had no market and they didn’t know what to do with it,” said Williams. “We said, maybe we could make a go of that, so there were many months of sheer terror about whether this was going to work. It was a bit of a Hail Mary, but when we launched in June customers had an iPhone that had Corning glass with scratch resistance, and it helped set the tone for iPhone.”
Williams also worked on the deal to prepay Hynix $1.25 billion (£985m) for flash memory, a move that helped Apple make the iPod Nano possible. He streamlined the iPod delivery process, allowing US consumers at the time to go online, buy an iPod, have it engraved, and then get it delivered all within three business days from start to finish. The list goes on.
What’s more, his success and abilities have not gone to his head. Unlike many other top-flight executives looking to make a name for themselves or raise their profile to star status, Williams is apparently intensely private, a “salt-of-the-earth kind of guy”. He wasn’t mentioned once in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Steve Jobs. There are also reports he continued to drive his banged-up Toyota with a broken passenger-side door even after being promoted to management. He also supposedly knows how to get the best from his staff, being even tempered and collaborative when solving problems.
Neil Cybart from Apple analysts Above Avalon went as far as to say back in January 2015 that he “considered Jeff Williams as Tim Cook’s successor before Cook finished his first day as CEO… Regardless of what the future brings, people need to start watching Jeff Williams because he is executing at levels that few are able to achieve.”
Whether you were surprised or not at Jony Ive’s departure – and you shouldn’t have been, the many signs were there for all to see – you could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow on hearing that Jeff Williams will now be leading Apple’s design teams. But a few rumoured products aside, we’re unlikely to see a radical design shift in Apple products in the next five years. That being the case and looking at his track record, Jeff Williams is just the person Apple needs right now as it transitions from hardware to services: sharp, smart and the guy that brings it home every time.