It was the question Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) watchers had been asking for years: What happens when Steve Jobs is gone?
Right or wrong, much of Apple’s reversal in fortune was being personally attributed to returned company co-founder and CEO Jobs. And as Apple climbed from PC also-ran to technology titan — thanks in large part to the world-beating iPhone, which turns five this month — investors grew uneasy. Jobs had already ditched Apple (or was pushed — depending on who’s telling it) once before. What happens if he leaves again?
As Jobs’ health deteriorated, questions of whether Apple would decline with its co-founder’s passing became more frequent. As late as July of last year, Apple’s board wasn’t commenting on succession plans, although rumors had some board members in discussion with the head of what The Wall Street Journal described as a “high profile technology company.”
The question of “who?” was answered on Aug. 24, when Apple announced Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO, to be replaced by Tim Cook.
Cook, former chief operating officer and head of the Macintosh division, became Apple’s fifth CEO (after John Sculley, Michael Spindler, Gil Amelio and Jobs). He stepped into a harsh spotlight, assuming one of the most powerful — and in some ways unenviable — positions in the corporate world, a spotlight that became even more intense after Jobs died.
Can Cook continue to lead Apple to the successes it enjoyed under Jobs? That’s a question best answered in retrospect. However, we can examine Cook’s performance to date to see how he stands up against his iconic predecessor.
Cook hasn’t been at the helm long enough to oversee the launch of an entirely new product. Under his watch, the iPhone 4S, new iPad, and Retina display MacBook Pro have been released, but all are incremental upgrades of existing products. They have Jobs’ fingerprints all over them, and it would be pretty hard for Cook to mess up these already successful products.
Verdict: Jobs was reportedly involved in the forthcoming iPhone 5 and even the rumored Apple TV (or iTV), so it could be a while until we see a new Apple product that Cook can call his own.
Nothing much to say here. First-quarter 2011 (under Jobs): $26.74 billion in revenue, profit of $6 billion and stock price at about $336. First-quarter 2012 (under Cook): $46.33 billion in revenue, profit of $13.06 billion and stock price at about $422.
Verdict: So far under Cook, Apple continues to be a steamroller.
A big part of the Jobs legend is the keynotes he presented at Mac conferences. His famous “one more thing” teaser toward the end of his speeches was used to casually introduce dramatic new products ranging from the iPod Shuffle to the first MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. Jobs was a showman, down to his trademark uniform (black turtleneck, jeans and white New Balance sneakers), and attendees spoke of the “reality distortion field” Jobs projected when he spoke.
While Cook has improved in his speaking appearances and also favors a casual look, he’s no Jobs when it comes to presentation. In fact, Mashable summed up his performance in the WWDC 2012 keynote with the headline: “Apple Keynote: Tim Cook Leads by Getting Out of the Way,” a pointed reference to Cook’s preference to let key staff take charge of presenting for their own divisions.
Verdict: While far from bad, Cook lacks Jobs’ brashness and charisma. Apple keynotes now are a little more predictable, a little less exciting, but we’re getting to know more of the Apple team as a result.
Competition With Google
Cook isn’t above taking a few shots at his company’s biggest mobile rival, Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android, particularly when it comes to boasting about Apple’s App Store and its tablet success. However, Cook takes a more pragmatic stance against rivals. For Jobs, it was personal. Speaking about Android, he was quoted as saying to his biographer, Walter Isaacson: “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” Cook, in contrast has gone on the record as preferring settlement to ongoing patent litigation.
Verdict: Going “thermonuclear” on Android has had little effect. Cook’s more reasonable approach, with less litigation and toning down the threats is a welcome change for the industry in general.
In some ways Cook has sidestepped comparisons to Jobs by avoiding the trap of trying to be just like him. Where Jobs was famously prickly with employees and tended to avoid socializing, Cook has made a point of picking random employees and eating lunch with them in Apple’s cafeteria. While Jobs kept Apple away from charitable projects (with the exception of Product Red), Apple under Cook almost immediately began matching employee donations to nonprofit organizations and announced a $50 million hospital donation.
When Apple’s iPhone supplier Foxconn hit the news over a rash of employee suicides in 2010, Jobs dispatched his COO (Tim Cook) to China to investigate. When working conditions at Foxconn again hit the news in 2012, Apple CEO Cook went to China to resolve the issue personally, even meeting and greeting employees at the factory.
Cook isn’t necessarily doing better or worse than Jobs; he’s doing things differently. Considering that “Think Different” was a mantra for much of the Jobs era at Apple, that’s not such a bad approach. Under Cook, Apple continues to be wildly successful by all measurements, yet the company has taken on a softer public face. It’s a little less brash, a little more socially responsible and a little less centered on a single person.
As a CEO, Cook is still firmly in control, but his humbler demeanor, businesslike approach and willingness to let other executives share the spotlight makes Apple seem less about one person. That’s a good thing.