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They Attempt to Figure Out Apple’s Current Management Scheme

You can be assured that few people outside of Apple know much about how the organization is being run these days with Tim Cook fully in charge. But there have been some leaks, stories based on alleged informed sources that reveal a somewhat more open management style, with greater opportunities for collaboration among key executives.

When Steve Jobs was in charge, he supposedly micromanaged every little detail, although the facts demonstrate that he did allow his lieutenants to do their thing more or less. Cook is one example, being the person who reformed Apple’s supply chain and thus made it possible to keep better tabs on demand. Well, it works unless the demand outstrips production, in which case waiting customers just have to continue waiting.

A lot of the changes have to do with personality. Jobs blew hot and cold, depending on his viewpoint or mood, whereas Cook appears to operate on more of a low-key level. At the same time, he is reputed to be a whip cracker too when he needs to prod his staff to work harder.

Now when it comes to new products, even Cook admits he’s not a product person. The job of designing new gadgets, and entering new markets, is left to others, with every indication that industrial design guru Jonathan Ive is getting more authority to do the vision thing. As those of you who have read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs know full well, Ive sometimes chafed at not getting full credit for some of his innovations. That’s not likely to happen anymore.

Indeed, there’s a story out now suggesting that Cook plus Ive, working together, are becoming suitable substitutes for Steve Jobs. Combine their strengths, plus the Apple Way that was embedded into the corporate DNA by Jobs over the years, and it’s quite possible Apple can continue to innovate in a big way for many years to come. Even after the product roadmaps reportedly conceived by Jobs are all executed, Apple will continue to create new roadmaps.

Of course, that’s a particularly optimistic view to take, but consider how well Apple fared even during the times when Jobs was clearly unable even to advise his interim CEO on day-to-day strategy. It seems the company never missed a beat. Certainly Cook’s success must have heavily influenced the decision of Apple’s board to hire him as permanent CEO, not to mention awarding him tons of stock options to keep him on board.

It may also be that Apple is now becoming more proactive in communicating with customers about problems. Take the iOS 5 battery issues, where updated gear and, above all, the iPhone 4s, suffered from seriously shortened battery life in some cases. Apple engineers reached out to customers who complained to the support people about the problem, and, this week, reportedly offered early access to the iOS 5.0.1 update that fixes that issue and a few others.

I have little doubt that, had this problem occurred last year when the iPhone 4 and iOS 4 arrived, Apple would have acted just as quickly to push an update. But I highly doubt they would have contacted customers to help them diagnose the problem, knowing full well that the media would learn about it within short order. I may be wrong, but I think this indicates one key operational change at Apple.

Here’s another possibility: One of my colleagues, author Kirk McElhearn, has encountered a curious problem with his recently-purchased 27-inch iMac. When the unit is put under heavy load, such as rendering data, he detects a smoky odor, as if the power supply is overheating. Unfortunately, service people were unable to duplicate the problem when the machine was sent in for diagnosis. So Kirk sent an email to Tim Cook. In response, someone from Apple’s executive support team tried to solve the problem. I don’t suggest Cook himself saw the message, anymore than Steve Jobs actually read all the email sent to him. More than likely, assistants examine those mailboxes and act on critical requests. But it’s also true that similar email sent to Steve Jobs would sometimes get a response from the proper corporate people.

Does this mean that Apple will also establish a more open public relations policy in releasing information to the media? I expect they won’t. Secrecy is an important part of Apple’s DNA, and turning new product announcements into special media events has proven successful each and every time. Apple garners millions upon millions of dollars in free publicity during the run up to an expected product intro. You can’t buy that sort of advertising. Yes, Apple does give advance briefings to a handful of journalists from key publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time magazine and elsewhere. But the rest of us have to fend for ourselves, or hope that our speculation will bear fruit.

Meantime, we can’t stop talking about Apple. Going forward, we will all continue to look closely at Apple’s ongoing behavior and performance, to see just what real changes Tim Cook has wrought. I expect some will be more than skin deep, while, in the most important respects, Apple will still be Apple.