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 October 29, 2012, although he remained in a functional advisory capacity for approximately six months thereafter.

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

Mapping the death of Forstall

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

Although Forstall was known to be disliked (at least at the executive level, many people who reported to him have published extremely positive commendations of his leadership in the years since), the iPhone and iOS were booming, and Forstall’s political credit as the Face of Apple’s mobile software division was somewhat insurmountable. He may not have many friends on the executive team, but it’s 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 are widely incorrect or incomplete. Navigation was unreliable and the fancy 3D city flyover feature exhibited model rendering issues for many landmarks. Apple Maps made national news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some joked Apple has only tested it in California (this actually turned out to be half-true). Just a week after iOS 6 came out, Apple issued an open letter apology admitting that maps quality was not up to standard. The letter even directs customers to download third-party maps apps like MapQuest and Waze.

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This open letter was signed by Tim Cook. It was reported in major newspapers like these New York Times That Cook wanted Forstal to sign the letter, but Forstal refused as he noticed that the complaints about maps were excessive. Cook saw this failure to accept responsibility as the final straw and decided it was finally time for Forstall to go.

The significant executive team shake-up was made public in a press release entitled “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). Eddie Cue was assigned 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

While 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 being hired to being fired in the same calendar year. He notably instituted a new retail hiring formula that saw part-time employee hours cut to a minimum (and some layoffs) across the board, seemingly in an effort to cut costs. The impact on employee satisfaction and customer experience in stores was immediate. In August, Apple completely reversed the policy and the PR group released a statement openly describing the changes as a mistake. In general, his appointment was announced in January 2012, began work in April, and was removed in October – just seven months in the role.

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The fallout

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

Skeuomorphic objects and richly detailed textures in Apple apps are replaced with stark white backgrounds, line art icons and buttons so simplified that they are only distinguishable by color, lacking any 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 shipped in June 2013, at WWDC. iOS 7’s reception was controversial; Some loved it, some hated it. iOS 7 arguably caught up with the broader industry trends, but overshot the mark. Future revisions to iOS saw the gradual return of things like borders around buttons, some shading and rounded gentle iconography with thicker default line weights and fonts.

To its credit, Apple invested a lot in Maps to make up for the initial rollout mess. They 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 collated data from partners like TomTom. In 2018, Apple unveiled that it was rebuilding Maps from the ground up, and was creating a new data layer that it owned entirely, a major undertaking that included running its own fleet of ground truth vans. This rollout has been positively received, and Apple Maps is competitive with Google Maps in many ways these days. Notably, Maps has remained under Cue’s remit since the 2012 shuffle, but Siri’s oversight has ping-ponged around various groups — and arguably seen far less progress.

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

Forstol himself has kept a low profile in the intervening years. He has privately invested in several tech startups, and was a named advisor to Snapchat around 2015. He has seemingly concentrated on philanthropic efforts and helped produce a handful of Broadway plays. He stood up for the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, in a television interview with the Computer History Museum.

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