Scott Forstall was fired from Apple 10 years ago today

It may be hard to believe, but it’s now been ten years since Scott Forstall was fired from Apple. Forstall was replaced by Craig Federighi on October 29, 2012, although he remained in an inactive consultant position for approximately six months thereafter.

Here’s a look back at what happened… and what’s next.

Map of Forstall’s death

Forstall was one of Steve Jobs’ closest associates at Apple. They ate lunch and worked together often. But following the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, rumors began to spread that Forstall was not particularly popular in senior positions. Many see Forstall as impersonating Jobs’ ego, and quick to deflect blame. In particular, Forstall is said to be at odds with Jony Ive, the head of industrial design, to the extent that they refused to hold meetings.

While Forstall was known to be unpopular (at least at the top level, many people who reported to him have published glowing reviews of his leadership in the years since), the iPhone and iOS were booming, and Forstall’s political credit as the face of Forstall. Apple’s mobile software segment seems invincible. He may not have had many friends on the big team, but it was hard to deny his team’s results. Well, then came September 2012 and the launch of iOS 6.

iOS 6 included a new Maps app, which uses Apple data and cartography, replacing Google Maps as the stock maps app on the phone. The launch was a widespread disaster. Apple Maps data sources were incorrect or incomplete. Navigation was unreliable and Flyover’s excellent city 3D feature showed signal rendering problems for many locations. Apple Maps has been making national headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some joke that Apple was testing it in California (this turns out to be half-truth). Just a week after iOS 6 came out, Apple published an open letter of apology admitting that the quality of Maps was not up to par. The letter even directed customers to download third-party mapping apps such as MapQuest and Waze.

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This open letter was signed by Tim Cook. It was reported in major newspapers such as New York Times that Cook wanted Forstall to sign the letter, but Forstall refused as he felt that the complaints about Maps were overblown. Cook saw the failure to accept responsibility as the last straw and decided that it was finally time for Forstall to go.

The big group move was made public in a press release titled “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Interoperability Across Hardware, Software and Services.”

Craig Federighi will take ownership of all Apple operating systems, iOS and OS X (now known as macOS). Eddy Cue shared with Siri and Maps. Jony Ive would manage the human interface team, in addition to hardware design.

John Browett also left at the same time

While Scott Forstall’s departure was the headline news, Apple Retail SVP John Browett was also fired at the same time. His tenure in retail was a disaster, from being hired to being fired within the same calendar year. Most notably, he introduced a new retail hiring formula that saw part-time workers’ hours slashed to record lows (and layoffs) across the board, in what appears to be an effort to cut costs. The impact on employee satisfaction and customer experience in stores was immediate. By August, Apple had completely reversed the policy and the PR team issued a statement clearly describing the changes as a mistake. All in all, his appointment was announced in January 2012, he started working in April, he was fired in October – he lasted only seven months in the role.

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To fall

Jony Ive’s towering role led directly to the introduction of the flat design aesthetic in Apple software. Almost as soon as Ive took over, he began working on the iOS 7 design process.

Skeuomorphic objects and elaborate colors in Apple applications were replaced by stark white backgrounds, line art icons, and simplified buttons distinguished only by color, lacking any kind of border or background. Teams of developers will deliver a major visual change to iOS in a very accelerated development timeline.

The first beta (buggy) of iOS 7 was shipped in June 2013, at WWDC. The adoption of iOS 7 was controversial; some loved it, some hated it. iOS 7 no doubt bucked industry-wide trends, but it missed the mark. The upcoming update to iOS saw the gradual return of things like borders around buttons, some tracking, and a soft rounded icon with default line weights and thick fonts.

To its credit, Apple has invested heavily in Maps to repair the damage of the initial release. They invest and hire globally to develop their mapping expertise, including one of their first major engineering bases in India. Early versions of the maps collected data from partners such as TomTom. In 2018, Apple revealed that it is rebuilding Maps from the ground up, and building a new data layer that completely manages it, a huge task that includes running dozens of ground truth vans. This release was well received, and Apple Maps competes with Google Maps in many ways these days. Notably, Maps has remained under Cue since 2012, but Siri oversight has been seen in various groups – and it seems like a very small improvement.

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It took Apple a while to find another SVP of retail. It took over from Angela Ahrendts in 2014, who helped integrate Apple’s online and brick-and-mortar experiences and worked with Ive to introduce major design changes to retail stores. Some of Ahrendts’ ambitions – to turn Apple stores into urban scenes – were not successful, although the theme continues with the variety of today in Apple’s times. Ahrendts left in 2019, replaced by Apple veteran Deirdre O’Brien.

Forstall himself has kept a low profile over the years. He has invested privately in other technology startups, and was an advisor to Snapchat in 2015. He became involved in humanitarian efforts and helped produce several Broadway plays. He appeared to mark the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, in a televised interview with the Computer History Museum.

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