Two years after Steve Jobs' death, how's that new CEO working out?
Is 'Timid Tim' an 'unmitigated disaster'? Only for the crap Map app flap chap and card-carrying Apple-haters
Analysis Two years ago today, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs died. Since then, much has changed at Apple, with the most visible difference being Tim Cook stepping out from under the shadow of his larger-than-life predecessor, shepherding Apple's product lines, expanding its distribution, reshuffling its executive team, mollifying investors – and watching its stock take a beating.
Not that Apple's share price was soaring on October 5, 2011; on the day Jobs died, it closed at $378.25. Its highest closing price since then was its highest of all time: $702.10 on September 19, 2012, having hit $705.07 in intraday trading. On that day, one analyst predicted that the stock would hit $1,650 per share by 2015.
Needless to say, that now doesn't appear likely. Is Cook to blame – or, at least, does he share the blame with his fellow execs? Or was Apple simply wildly overvalued in September 2012, and has it merely slipped comfortably back into more-realistic territory?
When evaluating Cook's performance as Apple CEO, it's instructive to remember that he wasn't suddenly thrust into the top job with no preparation, nor was he brought in from the outside to save a floundering business as was, say, Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer or HP's Léo Apotheker.
As with the former, the jury is still out about Cook's tenure. And as for the latter, well, we all remember how well that worked out. Cook, by the way, was rumored to be in line for the HP CEO position after Mark Hurd hit the skids – a rumor that was quickly pooh-poohed.
Jobs first left Tim Cook in charge of Apple's day-to-day operations in early August 2004, when he took a short leave to have a pancreatic cancer tumor removed; he returned to Apple that September, as expected. In 2009, he took a second medical leave of absence from Apple, saying that his health problems were "more complex" than previously thought – it was later revealed that he had received a liver transplant around three months later. Cook was again in charge during Jobs' absence.
When Jobs took a third medical leave of absence in January 2011, he still remained CEO – in title, at least – saying only that "I have asked Tim Cook to be responsible for all of Apple's day to day operations". In August of that year, however, Jobs relinquished that title, and formally passed the baton to Cook. Less than two months later, Jobs died, and Cook was on his own.
Well, not completely on his own, of course. Design guru Jony Ive had joined Apple in 1992, rising to SVP of industrial design in 1996. Hardware brainiac Bob Mansfield, who joined Apple in 1999, was head of Devices Hardware Engineering, having taken over that position when Mark Papermaster left for Cisco in 2010 (Papermaster became AMD's CTO a year later).
And then there was the man whom one former Apple engineer said was recognized by rank-and-file Cupertinians as "the only legit successor to Jobs" and whom that same ex-staffer called "the best approximation of Steve Jobs that Apple had left". That "best approximation" was Scott Forstall, formerly head of iOS, whose ouster last year provides insight into Cook's management style as compared to Jobs'.
The similarity of Forstall and Jobs, according to multiple sources, meant that he was known to be creative and dynamic, but also pushy, non-collaborative, imperious, polarizing, arrogant, and, well, a thesaurus-worth of obnoxious.
He was also regarded by many – and perhaps by himself, as there were rumors that he was marshaling opposition to Cook's leadership – as a possible successor for the CEO's corner office. That wasn't to be.
Although the details of his fall from grace have been kept hidden behind the Great Wall of Cupertino, Forstall "resigned" from his software-honcho position on October 29, 2012, as part of a sweeping executive reorganization at Apple. At the time, the company said that he would serve as an adviser to Cook until he left Apple for good at some unspecified date in 2013. How much advising he has done, however, remains murky.
At the time, there was speculation that Forstall was shown the door because of refusing to apologize along with Cook for iOS 6's botched Google Maps–replacing Maps app for which he had been responsible, as well as the disappointing performance of that operating system's marquee feature, Siri – performance so iffy that it lead to lawsuits.
The iOS 6 cockup may have been one proverbial camel-back straw, but the real reasons for Forstall's exit were many and varied. Last December, for example, Cook confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that Forstall's personality was indeed, one reason behind his ouster – although, of course, he didn't say so in exactly those words.
When asked about the Forstall departure, along with the exit of Apple's retail headman John Browett on the same day, Cook was diplomatic. "The key in the change that you're referencing is my deep belief that collaboration is essential for innovation," he said.
The design of iOS was also a point of contention. Forstall – and, for that matter, Jobs – was a fan of skeuomorphism, the translation of real-world objects into user-interface elements. Cook, apparently, is not – but more importantly neither is Jony Ive, whom Cook elevated from merely hardware-design headman to head of all design at Apple and tasked to drop skeuomorphism in iOS 7, released last month.
As an aside, there have been suggestions that Ive may be a possible successor to Cook. He's a visionary like Jobs, some argue, and vision is something that Cook lacks. This observer, however, finds that recommendation risible. Ive is a designer, not an administrator; a blue-sky thinker, not a nuts-and-bolts supply-chain negotiator; a manager of line, curve, color, and materials, not of a global army of 80,000 employees, well over 40,000 retail staffers, and – perhaps most important – seven fellow board members. Installing Ive as CEO would be the Peter Principle turned up to 11.
So back to reality, and fittingly back to skeuomorphism. Another beneficiary of Forstall's departure, Craig Federighi, who was elevated to head of all Apple's software engineering in the same reorg that put Ive in charge of all design, and who is also an anti-skeuomorph. As he explained in a USA Today interview with Ive last month, the new flat-design look of iOS 7 is "about a different philosophy."
One final detail of recent Apple history may lend another bit of conjecture regarding Forstall's departure. Valuable hardware headman Bob Mansfield "retired" in late June of last year. Cook lured him back in late August. The Forstall exit and reorg occurred two months later. Mansfield is now working on undefined "Special Projects" – think iWatch, iBigScreenTV, iWhatever.
Neither Mansfield nor Cook have publicly discussed whether their negotiations involved Forstall's role in the company, but one does wonder, doesn't one – especially considering that there had been reports that both Mansfield and Ive avoided contact with Forstall unless Cook was present to act as an executive DMZ.
Whatever the details of Forstall's departure, there can be no question that the reorganization that accompanied it showed that the Jobsian era had ended, and that Apple was now Cook's company. Cook is not Jobs – and he knows it.
And he also knows that for a company to thrive, the presence of an inspired visionary may be a wonderful thing, but the contribution of such a rara avis is not a make-or-break necessity.