Scott Forstall was fired from Apple 10 years ago today

It may be hard to believe, but it’s now been a decade since Scott Forstall was fired from Apple. Forstall was replaced by Craig Federighi on 29 October 2012, although he remained in a perfunctory advisory capacity for around six months thereafter.

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

Mapping Forstall’s death

Forstall was one of Steve Jobs’ closest allies at Apple. They would have lunch and work together constantly. But after Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, rumors began to circulate that Forstall wasn’t particularly fond of the executive ranks. Many saw Forstall as emulating Jobs’ ego, and were quick to deflect blame. In particular, it was said that Forstall clashed so much with Jony Ive, the head of industrial design, that they refused to meet together.

While Forstall was known to be disliked (at least at the executive level, many people who reported to him have published very positive praise of his leadership in the years since), the iPhone and iOS were booming, and Forstall his political credit as the face of Apple’s mobile software division seems somewhat insurmountable. He may not have had many friends on the executive team, but it was hard to deny his team’s results. However, September 2012 saw the launch of iOS 6.

iOS 6 includes a brand new Maps app, using 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 widely incorrect or incomplete. Navigation was unreliable and the fancy 3D city flyover feature exhibited modeling issues for many landmarks. Apple Maps has been making national news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some joked that Apple had only tested it in California (this actually turned out to be half true). Only a week after iOS 6 was released, Apple released an open letter of apology admitting that Maps quality was not up to standard. The letter even urged customers to download third-party mapping apps like MapQuest and Waze.

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This open letter was signed by Tim Cook. It was published in major newspapers such as New York Times that Cook wanted Forstall to sign the letter, but Forstall refused as he saw Maps’ complaints as redundant. Cook saw the lack of responsibility as the final straw and decided it was finally time for Forstall to go.

The significant executive team shakeup was made public in a press release titled “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services.”

Craig Federighi would assume ownership of all Apple operating systems, iOS and OS X (now known as macOS). Eddy Cue has been assigned to Siri and Maps. Jony Ive would take control of the human interface group, in addition to hardware design.

John Browett also left at the same time

Although the departure of Scott Forstall was the headline news, Apple Retail SVP John Browett was also fired at the same time. His reign over retail was a disaster, going from being hired to being fired in the same calendar year. Most notably, he introduced a new retail hiring formula that reduced part-time employee hours to a minimum (and some layoffs) across the board, apparently in an effort to cut costs. The impact on employee satisfaction and customer experience in stores was immediate. By August, Apple had completely withdrawn the policy and the PR group released a statement openly describing the changes as a mistake. In all, his appointment was announced in January 2012, he started work in April and was fired in October – lasting only seven months in the role.

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The Fallout

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

Skeuomorphic objects and richly detailed textures in Apple apps have been replaced by stark white backgrounds, line art icons, and buttons so simplified that they can only be distinguished by color, lacking any kind of border or background. Engineering teams would deliver the biggest visual change to iOS on a very accelerated development timeline.

The (buggy) first beta of iOS 7 was shipped in June 2013 at WWDC. iOS 7 reception was controversial; some loved it, some hated it. iOS 7 may have caught up with the broader industry trends, but overstepped the mark. Future versions for iOS saw the gradual return of things like borders around buttons, some shading, and rounded gentler iconography with thicker default line weights and fonts.

To its credit, Apple invested heavily in Maps to make up for the initial rollout. They have invested and committed globally to advance their mapping technologies, including one of their first major engineering bases in India. The initial versions of Maps collected data from partners such as TomTom. In 2018, Apple revealed that it is building Maps from the ground up and creating a new data layer that it wholly owns, a large enterprise that includes its own fleet of ground truth vans. This rollout was received positively, and Apple Maps is competitive with Google Maps in many areas these days. Notably, Maps has remained under Cue’s purview since the 2012 shuffle, but Siri’s oversight has ping-ponged around various groups — and arguably seen much less progress.

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It took Apple a while to find a replacement for Retail SVP. It brought on Angela Ahrendts in 2014, who helped unify Apple’s online and brick-and-mortar experiences and worked with Ive to introduce major design changes in stores. Some of Ahrendt’s ambitions – to turn Apple stores into public city squares – were not as successful, although the essence continues with the various array of skins at Apple sessions. Ahrendts left in 2019, replaced by Apple veteran Deirdre O’Brien.

Forstall himself has kept a low profile in the interim. He has privately invested in several tech startups, and was a named advisor to Snapchat around 2015. He has apparently focused on philanthropic efforts and helped produce a handful of Broadway plays. He surfaced for the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, in a televised interview with the Computer History Museum.

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