Scott Forstall was fired from Apple 10 years ago today

It may be hard to believe, but it’s 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 superficial advisory capacity for around six months after that.

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

Mapping the demise of Forstall

Forstall was one of Steve Jobs’ closest allies at Apple. They would have lunch and work together constantly. But after the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, rumors began to circulate that Forstall was not particularly liked within the management ranks. Many saw Forstall as emulating Jobs’ ego, and quick to deflect blame. In particular, Forstall reportedly clashed with Jony Ive, the head of industrial design, so much so that they refused to hold meetings.

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

iOS 6 included 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 fantastic 3D city Air Transport exhibited model rendering issues for many landmarks. Apple Maps made national news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some joked that Apple only tested it in California (this actually turned out to be half true). Just a week after iOS 6 came out, Apple released an open letter of apology admitting that the quality of Maps was not up to standard. 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 main newspapers like the New York Times that Cook wanted Forstall to sign the letter, but Forstall refused because he perceived the complaints about Maps as superfluous. Cook saw the failure to accept responsibility as the final straw and decided it was finally time for Forstall to go.

The significant reshuffling of the management team was announced in a press release titled “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Between Hardware, Software and Services.”

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

John Browett also left at the same time

Although Scott Forstall’s departure 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 hired to fired within the same calendar year. He most notably installed a new retail employment formula that saw part-time employee hours cut to a minimum (and some layoffs) across the board, ostensibly to cut costs. The impact on employee satisfaction and customer experience in stores was immediate. By August, Apple completely reversed the policy and the PR group issued a statement openly describing the changes as a mistake. In all, his appointment was announced in January 2012, began work in April, and was removed in October – lasting just seven months in the role.

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The fallout

Jony Ive’s elevated role directly led to the introduction of a flat design aesthetic in Apple’s 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 applications were replaced by stark white backgrounds, line art icons and buttons so simplified that they were only distinguishable by color, lacking any kind of border or background. Engineering teams would deliver the biggest visual change to iOS in a highly accelerated development timeline.

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

To its credit, Apple invested heavily in Maps to make up for the initial mess. They have invested and hired around the world to advance their mapping technologies, including one of its first major engineering bases in India. The initial versions of Maps compared data from partners such as TomTom. In 2018, Apple revealed that it was rebuilding Maps from the ground up, and created a new data layer that it owned entirely, a major undertaking that included running its own fleet of ground truth vans. This launch was positively received, and Apple Maps is competitive with Google Maps in many respects today. 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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Apple took some time to find a replacement for retail SVP. It brought together 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 the retail stores. Some of Ahrendt’s ambitions — to turn Apple stores into public city squares — haven’t been as successful, though the gist continues with the diverse set of Today at Apple sessions. Ahrendts left in 2019, replaced by Apple veteran Deirdre O’Brien.

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

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