Outside confusion over roles at Apple perhaps sign it’s kicking “special projects” into high gear

When Apple(s AAPL) CEO Tim Cook said earlier this year he was doubling down on secrecy, he apparently wasn’t kidding. The company has made some very puzzling moves lately and it’s staying very quiet on the reasons for them.
Apple’s executive leadership team has undergone some drastic changes in the last year, partly as a result of a major reorganization that redivided responsibilities after the ouster of Scott Forstall last fall. But the latest change, which occurred Sunday, is perhaps the most mysterious: Bob Mansfield, former SVP of Hardware Engineering and former member of Steve Jobs’ inner circle, who tried to retire last year and was convinced to stay on as SVP of the vaguely named Technologies division, is no longer leading that division. However, he is staying at the company and will report directly to his same boss, Cook. What, exactly, he’ll be working on, Apple won’t say.

Apple Leadership team July 2013

Bob Mansfield disappeared from this page on Sunday.

The reason for the reassignment of Mansfield is only one of many questions about what is going on at Apple right now. He’s not the only high-profile executive whose job title at Apple isn’t very clear or defined. While that might be a sign of turmoil, as was the case last year when Mansfield tried to retire, it’s quite possible that Apple is now moving key executives onto secret projects that it won’t reveal until it’s ready.
Other recent events that are adding to the mystery:

  • The hiring of the former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Deneve, earlier this month. He has no official title and is simply working on “special projects” and reporting directly to Cook.
  • Apple snared Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch earlier this year. He was working as VP of Technology under Mansfield.
  • The hiring this year of a bunch of experts in health monitoring technology, in areas like sensors and hardware design.
  • The opening of an entire new office for speech technology in Boston. Apple already has a speech engine in Siri, provided by Nuance. But it’s hiring former Nuance engineers to work on … something.

The reason these moves stand out now is that even though Apple’s culture of secrecy — where the concept of “need to know” is laid out in military-like fashion — is very much understood, once the iPhone arrived, the company’s corporate hierarchy became pretty well defined.

After Apple became a mobile company, we knew who was working on iOS software, on the hardware, on Mac software, on industrial design, etc. The same was true during the iPod era; it was quite clear which executive was ultimately responsible for Apple’s most important products.
But now, the product most critical to Apple’s future is the one (or two or three) that doesn’t exist yet. And the next big thing probably isn’t being developed in a current division — the iOS team is busily completing iOS 7, the hardware team is working on ways to make the iPad thinner and faster and so forth. So someone needs to be cultivating that next big thing, somewhere within the company.
iWatch 2 with boxThe fact that no one will talk about what Mansfield is doing is reminiscent of the team Forstall gathered in secret to develop what would eventually become iOS. That team was assigned to what they called “Project Purple,” and they took over a floor in a building at Apple HQ, added extra security, and hung a Fight Club poster outside. As back then, many people in the company many have no clue what Mansfield’s “special project” is either. It’s a good bet it’s going to be something that impacts Apple’s future if they’re devoting someone of his stature and experience to the project. (Daring Fireball says he’s heard from company insiders that Mansfield is indeed working on new products.)
Lynch has been rumored to be working on wireless technology with a team of former iPod engineers. Deneve, for his part, is an expert in wearable accessories of the fashionable kind. They could all be working on the same thing, or different projects.
Just like the rest of the mobile industry, Apple needs to figure out what comes after the iPhone and the iPad. It’s looking like that answer, or at least part of it, will be found in wearable computing devices. There is no wearables division at Apple — yet. But the company is registering trademarks for “iWatch,” and reportedly staffing up on the engineering team that will work on some sort of smartwatch.
But Apple, naturally, won’t offer any more information about future products — other than to say they’re “excited” about them — or who is working on them. It’s part of the company’s culture.

While the uncertainty over the roles of these key executives may be annoying for outsiders and investors, the ambiguity may be the greatest sign of all that Apple is moving full-speed ahead on its next-generation products. You can bet that if Apple is working on an iWatch, the first rule of iWatch Club is that you don’t talk about the iWatch.
Thumbmail image courtesy of ivoryelephantphotography via Compfight cc