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(CNN Business) —  

When Jony Ive first met Steve Jobs, Ive expected to be fired. Jobs, who had just made his triumphant return to Apple, was in the process of slashing the company’s bloated product line to focus the company for the future. Thousands of employees were laid off in 1997, the year Jobs came back.

Against that backdrop, Jobs paid a visit to Apple’s design studio, where Ive was only recently put in charge. “He came over to the studio, I think, essentially to fire me,” Ive recalled in “Becoming Steve Jobs,” a biography of the late Apple CEO. Ive even had a resignation letter ready in his pocket.

Instead, Jobs immediately saw the potential of Ive’s work. The two formed a close friendship and design partnership that took Apple (AAPL) from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1990s and made it the first trillion-dollar business in history. Together, they pushed out a remarkable string of hit hardware products, starting with the candy-colored iMacs and continuing with the iPod, iPad and Apple (AAPL)’s chief moneymaker, the iPhone.

Now that era is coming to an end. Apple announced Thursday that Ive is leaving Apple after nearly 30 years with the company. Both parties appeared to try to cushion the blow by stressing that Ive would be starting his own design firm with Apple as one of its primary clients. But the message was clear.

“You’re either at Apple or you’re not,” John Gruber, a prominent Apple blogger, wrote in a post on Thursday. “Ive is out.”

Ive’s departure was somehow both long rumored and still a shock to Apple watchers. Dan Ives (no relation, obviously), an analyst who tracks Apple for Wedbush, called the announcement a “surprise” to Wall Street in an investor note Thursday, as evidenced by the company losing billions in market value overnight. “Ive is leaving a hole in the company and is clearly irreplaceable,” he said.

It was hard enough to picture Apple without Jobs after the visionary founder’s death in 2011, but the continued presence of the design guru Jobs considered his “spiritual partner” helped mute some of the concerns about the company’s future. Now that future may once again be in doubt.

Apple didn’t just sell hardware, it sold taste. It didn’t need to be first to a product category — and it certainly didn’t need to be the cheapest or the easiest to repair. It only needed to convince customers that they were buying the best and most stylish hardware products on the market. With Ive’s departure and Jobs’ passing, Apple’s two key tastemakers are no longer working at Apple.

“He was the soul of Apple’s industrial design,” Tim Bajarin, a longtime Apple analyst, told CNN Business. And industrial design has long been the soul of Apple itself.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, and chief design officer Jonathan Ive look at the Mac Pro in the display room at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, and chief design officer Jonathan Ive look at the Mac Pro in the display room at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif.
PHOTO: Jeff Chiu/AP

Yet Ive’s departure coincides with a very public push from Apple to convince investors to focus on the potential of services like Apple Music and Apple Pay at a time when its core iPhone business is in decline. As a result, the next few years for Apple may be defined more by the success or failure of new credit cards and original television shows than by the hardware products Ive helped create.

The last major new hardware release from Ive and his team was the Apple Watch, which debuted nearly five years ago. According to multiple reports, Ive wasn’t as engaged after that and showed up to the office less.

In 2015, Ives was promoted to chief design officer and took a step back from day-to-day managerial duties while working on the construction of Apple’s massive new spaceship campus. He took back some of those responsibilities in 2017, though this clearly proved to be short-lived.

Ive began taking on unusual design projects outside his work at Apple, ranging from a Christmas tree for a London hotel lobby to an all-diamond ring that sold at auction for $256,000, with the proceeds going to charity. Meanwhile, he appeared at Apple events as a disembodied voice narrating videos about the materials that went into the company’s products.

The Jobs/Ive era at Apple has arguably been over for years. Thursday’s announcement only formalizes it. But it may also herald the beginning of a new era at Apple.

Apple said Thursday that the design team leaders will now report to Jeff Williams, the COO who is sometimes described as Tim Cook’s Tim Cook. Williams led the development of the Apple Watch and, according to Apple, “will spend more of his time working with the design team in their studio.”

That combination of operational and design responsibilities could well position Williams to be the most likely candidate to one day replace Cook as the next CEO of Apple.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have Tim Cook as CEO of Apple for years to come,” Tom Forte, an analyst with D.A. Davidson, told CNN Business. But he said this latest move suggests Williams is “being groomed to replace Tim in the future.”