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.
Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs – but so what?
Cook is a collaborationist; Jobs was most assuredly not. Cook has assembled a team with whom he is comfortable – and, perhaps more important, who are comfortable with one another. No one was completely comfortable with Jobs, and he made sure that they weren't. Different men, different styles.
Your humble Reg reporter has worked in companies run by executives with both management styles, and is of the considered opinion that both can lead to the development of products of exceptional quality and innovation, and that both can result in dysfunctional warrens of shortsighted crapmeisters turning out godawful garbaggio.
Failure is not the birthright of either the pushy visionary or the comfy collaborator. It was under non-collaborationist Jobs' watch, for example, that the dead-end iTunes Ping music–social media mashup was launched in September 2010 only to be put out of its misery two years later, and it was during the much more collaborative Gil Amelio's tenure that Apple developed, for example, the formidably poopy QuickTake 100 line of digital cameras.
That said, there have been oceans of ink spilled – or, in this digital age, petabytes of pixels blackened – in the rush to condemn Apple to a future of mediocrity or worse now that it has lost its charismatic, "visionary" cofounder. "It's all downhill from here," wrote The Guardian; "Tim Cook is great, but he needs someone else to be the spark in the leadership team," Jobs
hagiographer biographer Walter Isaacson told CNBC; Silicon Valley's San Jose Mercury News dismisses Cook as "Timid Tim" and CNNMoney brands him "an unmitigated disaster."
Strong words hurled at an easy target. The rush to condemn Cook's performance has surely been fueled by Apple's stock dive in the past year, and the reasoning behind much of the criticism has been that the company has not released a "disruptive" product during his tenure, nothing as market-changing as were the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
However, as the fervid fanbois at MacDailyNews remind us, the iPhone was released five years, seven months, and 19 days after the iPod, and the iPad was released two years, nine months, and five days after the iPhone. As of this Saturday's two-year anniversary of Jobs' death, Cook has been in the CEO saddle for two years, one month, and five days.
There are also those who argue that Apple's main moneymaker, the iPhone, wasn't treated to the same product-line proliferation as was Apple's first entry into the pocketable iDevice marketplace, the iPod.
This argument has a bit more going for it – a bit. The iPod was released in late October 2001, and was joined by the lower-cost, lower-capacity iPod mini in January 2004 – about two years and two months later.
The iPhone line, on the other hand, didn't bifurcate until the original version had been through six iterations – seven if you count the iPhone 5s – over about six and a half years. Of course, most of those years were under Jobs' watch, but that detail doesn't seem to bother Cook's detractors.
Jobs was perfectly content to offer just one version – at a time, of course – of Apple's flagship phone. Speaking on a conference call after announcing his company's financial results for the fourth quarter of its fiscal 2008, he said, "I wasn't alive then, but from everything I've heard, Babe Ruth only had one home run. He just kept hitting it over and over again."
But when the iPhone 5c was revealed last month, the chattering classes were shocked, shocked, that it wasn't the low-end, low-cost device that they had all been predicting, again suffering from a bit of amnesia that Cook had clearly said as early as 2009 that Apple wasn't going to produce a low-cost phone.
"You know us, we're not going to play in the low-end voice phone business," Cook told reporters and analysts during a conference call after the report of Apple's quarterly financial results that January. "That's not who we are. That's not why we're here. We'll let somebody do that, our goal is not to be the unit share leader in the phone industry. It is to build the best phone."
Now, whether or not Apple makes the best smartphone is a matter of taste and opinion, but there's no argument to be made that Cook was veering from the company line. On the same 2008 conference call mentioned above, Jobs was clear that Apple wasn't going to travel the low-rent route. Speaking of low-cost PCs, Jobs said, "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that."
But Cook's detractors are flaying him (and Jobs, in absentia) for not producing a cut-rate phone. They're also up in arms that under Cook's watch – pun intended – Apple hasn't released an "OMG I didn't know I want one of those but boyoboyoboy I do!" consumer-seducer such as the iDevices. A smartwatch, perhaps? A big-screeen TV? Please Mr. Cook, can I have some more?
After all, it's been two frickin' years since Jobs died, some are crying, and Apple hasn't sanctified an entirely new market by its entrance. Can't Cook just pull a rabbit out of his Ives 'n' Mansfield Special Projects hat and release something, even if only to calm investors?
No. Calming investors is the worst possible reason to rush a product into existence, even for a company that has $146.6bn in backup cash and short- and long-term securities. Apple is undoubtedly working on its next "One more thing..." as we speak, and it will release it when it – both Apple and the product – is good and ready. To do otherwise would be moronic.
Cook is no moron. One only needs to remember the disarray that infected Apple's supply chain and distribution systems before his arrival in 1998, and compare that money-draining mongo-mess to the relative smoothness with which they now function, despite the fact that they're now immensely more complex. Cook did that.
If this Reg hack could predict the future, he'd be a wealthy man – which he is most decidedly not. But he can examine the past, where he finds many bold punditory proclamations about Apple's supposed missteps. Many if not most of them, however, have been as spectacularly wrong as when the president of Channel Marketing's said in 2001 about Apple's new brick and mortar retail stores, "I give them two years before they're turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake," or a Computex panel agreeing in 2003 that the next companies to die would be Apple, Sun, and Novell.
Then there was the MarketWatch pundit dissing the just-released iPad in 2010, "The tablet market has only succeeded as a niche market over the years and it was hoped Apple would dream up some new paradigm to change all that. From what I've seen and heard, this won't be it."
Here at The Reg, we haven't been immune to such stumbles, not by a long shot. My particular favorite is a December 2006 article entitled "Why the Apple phone will fail, and fail badly", but you can find many more – some from this reporter.
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. And admittedly, that was then and this is now, and Cook is not Apple, he's merely its CEO. But when you see pronouncements such as a column in The Street this June entitled "There's No Question Now: Apple is Dead", history tells you to take such statements with the requisite NaCl.
I'm not usually one to predict the future, but I'll overcome my customary reticence and stick my neck out a wee bit: when we mark the next anniversary of Steven Paul Jobs' death, and the anniversary after that, and the anniversary after that, we'll look back at this two-year milestone and say to ourselves, "Remember all that brouhaha about 'Timid Tim' the 'unmitigated disaster'? What a crock that turned out to be."
As my dear ol' dad used to say when making a prediction, "Mark it down." ®