March 23, 2023

Apple Shake-Up Could Mean End to Real-World Images in Software

There, behind a list of text messages, missed phone calls and other updates, is a gray background with the unmistakable texture of fine linen.

Steven P. Jobs, the Apple chief executive who died a year ago, pushed the company’s software designers to use the linen texture liberally in the software for the company’s mobile devices. He did the same with many other virtual doodads that mimic the appearance and behavior of real-world things, like wooden shelves for organizing newspapers and the page-flipping motion of a book, according to people who worked with him but declined to be named to avoid Apple’s ire.

The management shake-up that Apple announced on Monday is likely to mean that Apple will shift away from such visual tricks, which many people within the company look down upon. As part of the changes, the company fired Scott Forstall, the leader of Apple’s mobile software development and a disciple of Mr. Jobs. While Mr. Forstall’s abrasive style and resistance to collaboration with other parts of the company were the main factors in his undoing, the change also represents the departure of the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs.

The executive who will now set the direction for the look of Apple’s software is Jonathan Ive, who has long been responsible for Apple’s minimalist hardware designs. Mr. Ive, despite his close relationship with Mr. Jobs, has made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple’s mobile software known within the company, according to current and former Apple employees who asked not to be named discussing internal matters.

This may seem like little more than an internal disagreement over taste. But Apple venerates design like few other companies of its size, and its customers have rewarded it handsomely as a result. Apple’s decisions can influence how millions of people use and think about digital devices — not only its own but those made by other companies that look to Apple as a standard-setter in design.

Axel Roesler, associate professor and chairman of the interaction design program at the University of Washington, says Apple’s software designs had become larded with nostalgia, unnecessary visual references to the past that he compared to Greek columns in modern-day architecture. He said he would like to see Mr. Ive take a fresh approach.

“Apple, as a design leader, is not only capable of doing this, they have a responsibility for doing it,” he said. “People expect great things from them.”

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, declined to comment.

Apple’s customers do not seem to have serious qualms about the design choices the company has made as they continue to buy iPhones and iPads at a healthy clip. But within the circles of designers and technology executives outside Apple who obsess over the details of how products look and work, there has been a growing amount of grumbling in the last year that Apple’s approach is starting to look dated.

The style favored by Mr. Forstall and Mr. Jobs is known in this crowd as skeuomorphism, in which certain images and metaphors, like a spiral-bound notebook or stitched leather, are used in software to give people a reassuring real-world reference.

In contrast, Microsoft, not known as a big risk-taker, has been praised recently for taking greater creative risks in the design of its software than Apple has. It has come up with a visual style that is now used throughout its computer, mobile and game products. It relies heavily on typography and sheets of tiles that provide access to programs and are updated with photos and other online information. It is not yet clear whether this approach will be a hit with people who do not spend time thinking about design.

Bill Flora, a former Microsoft designer who created the earliest prototypes of its new visual style, said Apple had not been innovative enough in the design of its software. “I have found their hardware to be amazing and sophisticated, and I have found their software to be kind of old school,” said Mr. Flora, who now has his own design firm, Tectonic, in Seattle. “Their approach really wasn’t what I was taught as a designer in design school.”

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You’re the Boss Blog: Putting the S.B.A. Into Perspective

Searching for Capital

A broker assesses the small-business lending market.

In this political season, there will be a lot of dialogue about the Small Business Administration as a possible solution to the small-business lending crisis in America. As two examples, the S.B.A.’s administrator, Karen Mills, spoke recently at the Democratic National Convention and Robb Mandelbaum wrote a post for this blog about the effect a Romney administration might have on the S.B.A. budget.

And that’s an important conversation to have. But it’s also important to keep something in mind about the S.B.A.: it is actually a very small part of overall small-business lending in America. This is easy to forget when government officials and politicians are hiding behind S.B.A. programs and stats, using them as benchmark for the state of small-business lending and implicitly suggesting that the S.B.A. can solve all small-business problems.

The numbers are clear. There are 318,396 loans currently being managed by the S.B.A. Meanwhile, there are 17,249,884 small-business loans on the books of banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. By this measure, the Small Business Administration. administers 1.85 percent of all small-business loans. The S.B.A.’s impact is greater if you compare the loans by dollar volume. The S.B.A. has a little more than $79 billion of loans on its books, compared to the more than $646 billion dollars of small-business loans held by those banks. That’s 12.23 percent.

But even this overstates the power of the S.B.A. Keep in mind that the F.D.I.C. numbers don’t reflect the tens of billions of dollars that are lent out by alternative private lenders — such as factors and  merchant cash-advance lenders — to small businesses. There is no data available for those loans.

Let me be clear, I am a proponent of the Small Business Administration. I believe it’s a good program and that it does important work. This post is not intended to be critical of the S.B.A. or to take a political position. It is meant to say that when we hear politicians talk about changes they intend to make in the Small Business Administration, they are only scratching the surface. If the S.B.A. makes progress, that’s great — but the problems are bigger than the S.B.A.

When it comes to solving the puzzle of improving access to capital for small-business owners, the S.B.A. may be a piece of the puzzle — but it is only a piece. And we should all think about it that way.

Ami Kassar founded MultiFunding, which is based near Philadelphia and helps small businesses find the right sources of financing for their companies.

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Prescriptions: Blue Shield of California Vows to Cap Profits

Blue Shield of California, a not-for-profit health insurer based in San Francisco, is promising to limit its profits and give the bulk of any excess income it makes back to policyholders who are buying coverage.

The insurer’s chief executive, Bruce Bodaken, made the announcement on Tuesday in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The insurer has recently come under sharp criticism for steep hikes in the amount it charges for its policies as well as how much it pays Mr. Bodaken.

Blue Shield was an early proponent of an overhaul of the health insurance industry, and the insurer said it knew its decision was not an answer to the problem of how to cover people when the cost of coverage was so high.

In the opinion piece, Mr. Bodaken says the insurer plans to cap its profits at 2 percent of its revenues. If in any given year it makes more money because the cost of providing health care was lower than it expected or because it made more money from its investments, Blue Shield says it will give the excess back to the community.

Blue Shield is starting with the $180 million of excess profits it made last year — $167 million will go to policyholders, $10 million to hospitals and doctors that try new ways of delivering better coordinated care and $3 million to its own foundation.

Will other not-for-profit insurers follow suit?

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