One thing is certain from the Tim Cook interview at the AllThingsDigital D10 event, and that is that he has the company line down pat. What’s more, his positions don’t appear to represent the huge departure from the Jobs era at Apple that some would have you believe.
This doesn’t mean that Cook hopes or expects to be another Steve Jobs, or that they plan to channel Apple’s co-founder in plotting corporate strategy or developing new products. Indeed, there’s one telling point in the wide-ranging interview in which Cook recounts his visit to the home of the ailing Steve Jobs to be essentially anointed as the next CEO of Apple. According to Jobs, the Disney company’s biggest mistake after Walt Disney died was to attempt to imagine what he would have done in their place. So Disney suffered until new leadership found the way to turn the huge ship around and move ahead.
Apple has the advantage of having replaced Jobs while he was still alive and, though seriously ill, as active as he could be. Since Cook was already a temporary CEO, and had gotten used to the reigns of power, the transition was clearly far less difficult. In the months that followed, Cook quickly asserted his leadership and made some changes in Apple’s corporate strategy. This is where the critics say that Apple might be in danger of losing its way. The theory has it that he did things Jobs would not have done and therefore he moved Apple closer to becoming just another tech company, more corporate, perhaps losing that “Think Different” aura.
Well, maybe, but I didn’t get that impression from several readings of the text from that interview.
One particularly ill-informed critic has listed ten ways in which Cook’s stewardship of Apple is moving in the wrong direction. One has it that Apple’s penchant for secrecy has loosened, and cites that infamous loss of a prototype of the iPhone 4 in 2010, which, as you recall, occurred while Steve Jobs was still alive. Stuff happens, and it’s important to note that Cook said that Apple plans to double down on corporate security. If you thought Apple played things close to the vest before, well it’s only going to get worse.
At the same time, Cook promises Apple will be more open in reporting on its dealings with third-party contract makers, such as Foxconn. That Cook made a trip to China to observe one of the production lines is a gesture, to be sure, but a significant one intended to demonstrate that he is serious about not tolerating bad working conditions. At the same time, Foxconn has announced yet another doubling of employee salaries. It’s still a fraction of what factory workers get in the U.S., but it’s far better than what employees at other factories in China are getting.
Another alleged problem with Cook’s management is the possible reduction in quality of Apple gear since he took over. I think it’s fair to say that Siri has been singled out. There’s even a brief quote suggesting that, in the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, he wasn’t exposed to the iPhone 4s until it was presented to him at a board meeting, where he didn’t seem very impressed. I do not believe that everyone’s favorite micromanager never spent serous face time with the iPhone 4s, and Siri, before he died. Besides, as I mentioned in yesterday’s column, Siri was acquired by Apple in 2010. So would that have been done under the radar? Give me a break!
Sure we have Cook admitting that Siri isn’t a perfect solution. At the same time, it’s the one feature of the iPhone 4s that people keep talking about. Siri has become almost a cultural icon, and the TV spots featuring, first, regular people, and later show business figures, have garnered lots and lots of attention, positive buzz if you will. Cook says that Apple is looking into making Siri work more reliably, and to expand it in ways that, of course, he won’t reveal. So much for suggesting that Jobs was unhappy with Siri.
The real question is how well Cook and Apple will do going forward. That Cook rejected a $75 million payment in dividend income for his labors may have been done strictly to show his commitment to the company. It’s not as if he really needs the money. But it will probably take a couple of years, at least, for him to prove that Apple can persevere with amazing products and record revenues. Certainly Cook says all the right things about the company’s ongoing focus on a small number of trend-setting products where they feel they can make a difference. He’s certainly believable even if his demeanor is more reserved than Jobs. But the questions will persist until he shows, year after year, that Apple can continue to innovate. One or two failures, and industry analysts will be looking for his head, and suggesting possible replacements.
Going forward, maybe the words of Steve Jobs were prescient, that his successors should not, for even a moment, wonder what he would do in their place.
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