Tim Cook's Big Apple Challenge: Don't Be a Tool

Last Updated Oct 12, 2011 4:21 PM EDT

People have some big questions about Apple's (AAPL) new CEO, Tim Cook. Can he be creative and visionary enough? Can he continue to grow revenue and stock price?

Something you almost never hear, though, is whether Cook can stop being a tool. Even though he's been CEO for a short time, with Jobs having been ill for so long, Cook has really been the man in charge for a while. And there are little signs that pragmatism and a primary focus on profit are pushing out the more customer-centric emphasis that Jobs had.

The impractical visionary
Not that profit is bad, by any means. But there is a world of difference between the approach to business Jobs had and that of Cook. With Jobs, the world could be chaotic. There was a reason that in the early 1980s, Apple's top management wouldn't let him run the Lisa project: he massively screwed up the Apple III.

Jobs was also a visionary who would drive for perfection. But he wasn't the most practical guy in the world. He was notorious for telling designers, engineers, and others to redo work, even very late in a project, to be sure it was right. "Does not tolerate fools" is code for, "can be nasty and unforgiving of people's faults."

However, all that was put in the service of users and it created a veritable cult of personality. Tim Cook literally thinks different -- he's a different animal.

Enter the fixer
Apple first brought on Cook because he was different from Jobs -- he was an operations expert, a high tech Mussolini who could make the trains run on time. Cook was the one who moved manufacturing overseas for a cost advantage.

He could get products to customers quickly, satisfying the immediate gratification that makes consumer electronics as fashion work; after the emotional hook, you've got the product in hand before the rational side of your brain can fully kick in. (And for those fanboys who will claim that buying Apple products is rational because they are "superior," please don't even start. This is high marketing, and companies want to exploit the emotional decision as quickly as possible.)

If chief industrial designer Jonathan Ive was an aesthetic soul mate, Cook was Jobs' boring twin who was brilliant at getting everyday things to work well. You wouldn't invite him to be the magnetic draw of a party. You'd ask him to run the party. Apple has ruled in its markets because of the twin abilities to feed the emotional spark of customers and to execute flawlessly. It was a balance that is rare in business.

An unbalanced Apple
But the dynamic between the two ways of seeing the world is now completely severed. Cook is first and foremost someone who will make Apple more efficient and profitable. However, when you take efficiency to the extreme, you need customers to fit in as part of your operations. That eventually can be the death of a bond between consumers and a brand.

There are already little signs that Apple is marching to the tight beat of a military drum, and that it expects its customers to follow:

None of it is overwhelming in scope, but it all happened within the last month and all are potential signs of a tip toward machines and away from people.

It's not as though Apple was beyond ticking off people even with an active Jobs at the helm. But it is more Cook's nature to want those trains to run on time, no matter how uncooperative the passengers can be. For Apple's brand and business strategy, that is a dangerous precipice.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.