Can Tim Cook do what Steve Jobs couldn't?
Tim Cook sitting at Steve Jobs' right at an event in 2007. / James Martin/CNET
(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Apple (AAPL) watchers have been closely watching CEO Tim Cook, wondering if he -- or anyone -- could take the place of the company's co-founder and icon Steve Jobs. Fortune senior editor-at-large Adam Lashinsky, who wrote the book Inside Apple last year, addressed How Tim Cook Is Changing Apple, and the piece has Apple-heads across the blogosphere buzzing.
Lashinsky looks at the ways Cook is putting his stamp on the company, from embracing a more corporate approach to business, to presenting a more open and welcoming organizational face to employees and to Wall Street (though not to the press). Most of the focus among the Apple faithful is whether Cook can be enough like Jobs to keep the magic moving. But there's a more important question: Can Cook do what is necessary for the company that Jobs would never have been able to accomplish?
The inherent assumption behind much of the coverage of the transition from Jobs to Cook has been whether the latter can keep the magic going: Both the financially resounding results and a parade of "magical" products that continue to capture the public's eye and enable the continued expansion of a customer base that assures Wall Street remains happy.
Integrate operations with design
Some telling comments by Lashinsky's sources were that "project management and global-supply management" representatives are now in significant meetings, which, according to an engineer, "leads to more sharing of resources, which leads inevitably to fighting, which leads to weaselly excuses."
Lashinsky writes that "allowing anyone to interfere with the creative-genius engineers is anathema to the Steve Jobs ethos at Apple." Instead of engineer, some might use the term designer, as former Apple CEO John Scully did:
An anecdotal story, a friend of mine was at meetings at Apple and Microsoft on the same day and this was in the last year, so this was recently. He went into the Apple meeting (he's a vendor for Apple) and when he went into the meeting at Apple as soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking because the designers are the most respected people in the organization. Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO.
Either way, it's clear that traditionally in Apple's corporate culture, those who created products were at the top of the pyramid. The focus is vital to wooing the public.
Fix before things break
However, the approach has limitations. Anyone who has ever had to deliver a product and who has been pushed to the wall to make changes and improve things knows that doing an imitation of Star Trek: Next Generation's Jean-Luc Picard and ordering someone to "make it so" can eventually make things implode. How often can you ask someone to stay up all night to make changes -- or have a Chinese outsourcer wake factory workers at midnight to revamp iPhones because of a last minute design change, as the New York Times reported?
Getting materials, manufacturing, and the right pricing are all part of getting products to market. Who knows how many times secretive Apple has actually stumbled without the public hearing, wasting opportunity? Could a brouhaha like the iPhone 4 antenna problems have been avoided by additional testing and planning?
Simply screaming at the staff, as Jobs would purportedly do in a tirade, doesn't rectify the situation. As competition increases and Android devices, in the aggregate, take the lead in mobile phone shipments, slipups won't do. The best way to avoid them is to adequately plan in advance, so seeing the inclusion of the people that have to make the designs work is a positive step.
Improve Apple's public face
For all the talk of the Steve Jobs Patented Reality Distortion Zone, Apple had been giving itself a black eye in one way and another. The company's prominence has brought it under ever increasing scrutiny, with any misstep causing public grief. Labor issues reported on by The Times and other outlets are a perfect example.
Apple's we'll-do-it-our-way attitude left relations with Asian suppliers -- and, by extension, with those factory workers -- something that didn't seem to adequately change over time. The company doled out information as it chose while things came to a boil. It didn't matter that similar issues might exist for competitors, many of which used the same major outsources as Apple did.
As Lashinsky points out, Cook took an equally public approach, visiting a factory and the company joining the Fair Labor Association. This is something that Jobs never did and likely never would have done. But as corporation governance and citizenship become a bigger issue for critics and regulators, Cook has begun to do what Apple had to.
Maintain the design magic
The biggest question for the faithful is whether products that wow customers will continue to churn out. Some assume that Jobs was the driving force behind all that was good. A driving force? Certainly. The driving force? Probably not.
Yes, Jobs would toss things back in the face of designers if he thought it didn't come up to snuff, but he was not unerring. The price of the first iPhone was far too high, so Apple had to drop it within two months of the product's debut. Jobs was "blatently harsh" on the "Think Different" campaign that helped resuscitate the company's fortunes, according to Rob Siltanen, who was the creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day, the agency that created it.
Apple has a deep team of designers and engineers who collectively make new products. Jobs didn't invent touch interfaces. Apple acquired FingerWorks, which made the multi-touch iPhone and iPad possible. The company also acquired the technologies behind the processors that run its devices and the Siri voice interface. The expansion of M&A resources for Apple, which Lashinsky mentioned, is only a good sign.
And it's not as though Apple never before went a stretch without a big surprise that sent everyone for their wallets. But it will take something completely new and revolutionary that will floor all watching. That is, if those people will be open to admitting how much of a leap something like a voice concierge or a screen resolution better than what you can find in print actually is.
The Jobs aura
This is the one thing that Cook can't pull off. Sitting down with employees at lunch, being relaxed and even joking during meetings, or regularly talking to analysts on earnings calls, he appears more open and receptive than Jobs. That has a lot of positive value in working with people.
And yet, even with its dark side, the Jobs Mystique had some positive benefits for the company. Working for a demigod can help drive employees to do more than they might for an ordinary CEO. Customers and journalists who are taken with the products and the myth yearn for a taste of recognition and will do almost anything for it. The distance served a purpose.
Cook doesn't possess the aura, and many of the strengths that he brings and that Apple needs are incompatible with that sort of presence. And yet, can all of that taken together be enough without a physical embodiment of the Apple mythos? That is the biggest unknown of them all.
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