When Tim Cook assumed the CEO position at Apple five years ago, he was faced with an impossible task: follow in the footsteps of Steve Jobs. Indeed, given Jobs’ remarkable track record within the tech industry, it’s widely accepted as gospel that no one on earth could ever truly replace Jobs. Looking back, Jobs helped spearhead not one, but three technological revolutions, first with the Mac and later on with the iPod and the iPhone.
With Tim Cook currently at the helm of Apple, it’s still curiously popular, not to mention intellectually lazy, to reflexively point out that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. In fact, any time Apple runs into trouble, we’re inundated with pundits and talking-heads who still love pointing out that Tim Cook lacks the vision that Steve Jobs famously boasted in spades.
The reality of Tim Cook’s tenure at Apple is much more nuanced. Revolutionary devices like the iPhone only come along once every so many decades. Consequently, analysts who are quick to demand similar innovations out of Tim Cook’s Apple demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding as to how innovative products come to be.
More often than not, innovations don’t emerge out of thin air but are rather the culmination of many advances across a wide swath of technological areas. As former Apple executive Jon Rubinstein has opined, the iPhone would not have been possible without some of the previous software and hardware innovations Apple first pulled off with its Mac lineup.
Additionally, looking at Tim Cook’s tenure through the prism of Steve Jobs ignores many of Apple’s achievements over the past few years. Remember, the last iPhone released when Steve Jobs was alive was the iPhone 4s. Since then, the iPhone’s capabilities have increased by leaps and bounds. Touch ID and Apple Pay, in my personal opinion, are complete game-changers.
Deifying Steve Jobs while blasting Tim Cook may make for a great talking point, but it tends to ignore the fact that Steve Jobs was very human and was far from perfect. Jobs had no shortage of failures underneath his belt and, as a quick example, was initially against the idea of rolling out an App Store.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Tim Cook’s CEO position, Recode managing editor Ed Lee appeared on CNBC today and trotted out many of the same tired lines about how Apple is in desperate need for a visionary leader. It’s essentially formulaic punditry at this point: 1) Praise Tim Cook as an operational genius 2) Blast Tim Cook for not being Steve Jobs.
The Street writes of Lee’s appearance on CNBC this morning:
“Apple needed a Tim Cook with operational excellence because Steve Jobs was all over the place, making last-minute changes to all kinds of things,” Lee said.
Lee cited the infamous situation in which Steve Jobs wanted to change the iPhone screen to glass from plastic just six-weeks before the product’s launch. The original prototype of the phone had been plastic. However, Jobs, frustrated with the amount of scratches the screen had, wanted an overhaul. Cook stepped in and ensured the problem was sorted out in a timely and efficient manner.
Despite his calm, cool and collected demeanor in handling crisis situations brought about by the company’s founder, Lee says Cook lacks something Steve Jobs embodied that propelled Apple into becoming an icon.
“Now what they’re lacking is they don’t have a vision guy. Cook is a great operator, a great executive, but we haven’t seen evidence of the next game-changing product,” Lee explained.
What a load of nonsense.
First off, the idea that Jobs was all over the place seems like an odd and factually empty premise to begin with. To wit, the example Lee uses to back it up is bizarre to say the least. Jobs wanting to change the iPhone screen from plastic to glass underscored Jobs’ commitment to product excellence. Upon realizing that an iPhone that could scratch easily upon being placed in one’s pocket, Jobs was determined to find a better solution and subsequently used his influence to help bring Gorilla Glass to the mainstream. Hardly an example of Jobs being all over the place, Jobs’ last-minute decision was a stroke of genius. As for the overhaul, much of that credit is owed to Corning, not Tim Cook. Lee here seems to be saying any number of random things to clumsily support his misguided conclusion.
Moving along, Lee’s assertion that we haven’t seen “evidence of the next-game changing product” from Apple is once again an example of someone not quite understanding how innovative cycles tend to operate. The reason the iPhone was revolutionary was precisely because it was a product that only comes along once every few decades. Further, it’s easy to forget that many years often pass between any two hit products. As an obvious example, look at the lag time behind the introduction of the original Mac and the iPod. Even the time frame between the iPod and the iPhone was a good six or so years.
Will the Apple Watch prove to be a revolutionary device? Maybe. Maybe not. If we look back, it took the iPod a few years to truly get off the ground and running.
Taking a step back, evaluating Tim Cook’s time as Apple CEO should be an all-inclusive evaluation, not an exercise in cherry-picking. Under Tim Cook, the entirety of Apple’s hardware suite has improved by leaps and bounds. Under Tim Cook, shares of Apple soared to new heights. And perhaps most of all, if we want to laud Steve Jobs as being an absolute genius who could do no wrong, why are we supposed to assume that him choosing Tim Cook to be CEO was such a catastrophic mistake?
Tim Cook isn’t perfect and he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s no Steve Jobs. Again, nobody on this earth is. Tim Cook may lack the vision that Steve Jobs had, but Apple is not a one-man operation. Apple is staffed by some of the smartest engineers and research scientists in the world who are continuously working hard to push the technological bar higher. One of Tim Cook’s best attributes is that he is cognizant of his own shortcomings and is willing put smart visionary people around him while also being able to acknowledge and rectify mistakes when his judgement runs askew.
With Apple still making money hand over fist and compelling new upgrades set to hit both the MacBook Pro and the iPhone (curved OLED display anyone?), I think it’s high time we stop blasting Tim Cook for no good reason.