Business

Apple’s CEO: Is the right Cook in the kitchen?

Other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , Tim Cook must be the most speculated-about figure in the world. What will they do next? Reporters and journalists are obsessing over how far along they are in developing weapons of mass destruction or mass distraction.

Apple’s recent debacle over the abandonment of Google Maps for their own home-grown cartographic calamity has raised concerns over Cook’s leadership, and whether he embodies the relentless perfectionism that’s part of the Jobsian hagiography. I mean, if Steve would get all spun up over a flush-mounted screw on the back on the iPod, he probably would have been more than a little concerned about misplacing the Washington Monument.

To which I say: It’s way early. This is Cook’s first inning, or to use a more appropriate metaphor, we’re merely at the amuse-bouche. The Jobs era was cumulatively and collectively brilliant, but it exhibited enough sporadicism to allow us to cut Cook some real slack. The passage of time compresses our memories, events which were separated by years are recalled as nearly back-to-back. We forget the long periods between Apple innovations.

The iPod was introduced in 2001, and while it was sequentially improved – including the addition of the iTunes store, which came later, in 2003, but is often thought to have been simultaneously created – the iPhone didn’t show up on the scene until 2007. That’s six years, more than half a decade, without a significant platform innovation. Cynics could easily have said in 2005 that Apple had lost its edge, and all they’re doing is incrementally improving the iPod with traditional consumer electronics line extensions like the Nano.

Next, it took three years, until 2010, for the iPad. And if you remember, at the time many said that it was literally overblown, just a bigger version of the iPod Touch and hence not all that revolutionary at all.

Cook needs more time in the kitchen to prove himself. I think he is self-aware, harboring no illusions about becoming the creative and inspirational meteor that was Steve. He wasn’t given the job for that reason. He’s a supply chain master. And keep in mind that Jobs didn’t make the decision overnight; he gave it the same kind of thought parents do when they name a guardian for their children before they board a flight on Air Myanmar.

It’s certain that Jobs thought Cook has not only the operational skills, not just the leadership qualities, but also — and most importantly — a bone-deep appreciation of creativity, and the ability to be a catalyst for it. Jobs turned his baby over to someone with completely different skills, which may have been brilliant, or a sign of incredible ego — there’s nobody like me so I need to find someone not like me — or both.

Jobs was Picasso. He conceived. Cook is Gertrude Stein. At best, a brilliant, inspiring patron who appreciated breakthrough work, encouraged it, and was maddeningly impatient with anything less. There are remarkable people within Apple — Jonathan Ive, as an example — and they’ll clearly have an environment that encourages them to, as the advertising went, think different. It’s even possible that the galactic figure of Jobs made it difficult for some talent to blossom.

Whether they will produce the next culture-shifting product, or whether Steve would have done it himself, is gapingly open. Also open is whether Cook can be the persuasive, kick-ass salesman that Jobs was. We can’t forget that he personally sold the music labels on the 99 cents iTunes model (of course, they were in full piracy panic mode at the time). That kind of arm-twisting-disguised-as-opportunity will be required with the entertainment industry if Apple TV is going to revolutionize that experience. And it will likely be required with any new profound innovation that integrates hardware and software in a hiccup-free ecosystem.

Net net, I think Cook’s Apple will innovate with aggressiveness that surprises a lot of people. In terms of asset appreciation, it’s already done that; the stock was $378.25 when Jobs died, and it was $609.84 at the end of trading this past Friday, an increase of 62 percent.

But Cook faces an unprecedented challenge, comparable to Disney after Disney and to a lesser extent Ford after Ford.

What’s particularly grueling about Cook’s challenge is that it’s not just about inventing product, but about managing legacy. This high-stakes drama was front and center a few weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs. Apple put together an emotional, gauzy black-and-white video that showed Young Steve and Older Steve and turned their homepage over to it for a weekend. The tribute was accompanied by a letter from Cook which spoke to the memory and the way it animates the company every day.

The dialectic between reverence and moving forward is tricky. The past still sells a lot of products, but it doesn’t create the next ones.

Adam Hanft is a well-known brand strategist whose clients include leading digital brands and major consumer package goods companies. He is a strategic advisor to Conduit, Israel’s largest Internet company. Adam also blogs frequently for Huffington Post, Fast Company and other media on marketing, politics and the consumer culture.

Photo: Dean Takahashi/VentureBeat


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