From the day he took over as CEO of Apple, Tim Cook had to work overtime to prove his mettle. He was operating in the shadow of Steve Jobs, and maybe nobody could carve out a distinctive place in the sun after that opening act. But it’s also time to be realistic.
Consider that Jobs took three extended sick leaves in his final years, as he battled pancreatic cancer and other illnesses. On each occasion, Cook became the acting CEO and handled the day-to-day management chores at Apple. Sure, Jobs was available and no doubt made the hard decisions about new products and services, but those decisions had to be executed by Apple’s design, engineering and operations team. Cook is a genius and bringing products to market, keeping production costs as low as possible, not to mention efficient inventory controls.
Knowing that the end was near, Jobs clearly took measures to ensure a smooth succession, and also likely green lit new products perhaps for several years. But Apple can’t just rely on the decisions made by someone who is no longer around. Market forces and new inventions by Apple will force the company to alter products or keep them off the market.
However, as the Disney company learned years back in the years after Walt Disney’s death, they couldn’t succeed wondering what Walt would have done. That’s the spirit of the advice Jobs gave his team, and it may be wrong to assume every new product in the near-term was based on a concept that he approved.
It’s quite likely that the iPhone 5, regardless of the looks and feature set, will be looked upon as not innovative enough. Also, it’s very possible that the supposed leaks about it will be regarded as a lapse in Apple’s security. Jobs would never have allowed that to happen, forgetting that leaks or alleged leaks have occurred before. Don’t forget one notable episode where the prototype for the iPhone 4 was left or stolen at a restaurant, and ended up being written about by an online tech publication.
That happened under Steve Jobs’ watch, but how can you expect perfection? There are many ways details about a new product can be mistakenly disclosed, even if it doesn’t involve a prototype that is allowed to leave the Apple corporate campus. Individuals who are part of Apple’s Asian supply chain may feed photos and other details about components to the media, or perhaps to accessory makers to get a leg up on new designs.
While I’m sure Apple wants to tighten security at every level, there are far too many eyes to blindfold to make the system perfect. Even if Apple built everything at their own factories, third-party component makers could provide information about critical design changes. A careless executive may say something to the wrong party, and the poorly chosen words may reach someone’s blog or a mainstream media outlet.
Apple may warn their suppliers to shut up, and penalize those who are responsible for too many product leaks. But it’s not as if Apple can just cancel a multimillion dollar component contract and move elsewhere. It may be too late in the product development cycle to pick a different contractor, or maybe there’s only one source for a critical part.
I’ve also been inclined to believe that some of these leaks are deliberate. Apple’s own marketing people strategically feed a few tidbits about a new product in order to keep us talking about it. Such information, particularly when it appears to come from responsible and informed sources, makes it doubly certain that someone higher up in Apple knows what’s going on. This is the kind of publicity you cannot buy.
Regardless of how things turn out for Apple over the next few years, Cook will almost always be judged by a higher standard. He’s not a product guy, and is more concerned with marketing and production. That approach will supposedly blunt Apple’s edge, make it function more like other tech companies. Apple’s days in the sun must be short-lived, since there is no single person with a unique sense of design and customer needs to approve a unique design and make history. Would Tim Cook, for example, have approved the concept for the iPod? Does he really lack the proper instinct — or is that something he can develop over the years working with Apple’s brilliant design team?
No doubt, Cook has to listen more to his colleagues when he makes product decisions, but that doesn’t mean Apple won’t continue to execute with the same touch of greatness.
For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about the sales prospects for the iPhone 5 and the other products Apple plans to introduce this year. Even if Apple sells record numbers of everything, some will say it wasn’t Cook but the ghost of Jobs that kept Apple afloat. Isn’t that going just a little too far.