Ten years ago, Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone to the world, changing the trajectory of the company for the next decade, and permanently changing the tech landscape.
Now, Apple is sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars in the bank — thanks to that single, highly successful, and highly disruptive product. But how much of Apple’s success with the iPhone was down to Jobs, and how much of the company’s future hinges on current CEO Tim Cook?
I’ve been watching Apple casually for several decades, and closely for over a decade, and one thing that has surprised me is the issue of how much bearing the CEO has on the overall success of the company.
After Apple broke into the mainstream with the iPod, the overwhelming consensus, not only among fans but also pundits and analysts, was that Jobs was a driving force behind that success.
But since Jobs’ passing and the handing of the reins over to Cook, I’ve watched that message change and morph into one where the consensus is that the CEO doesn’t matter, and the company will carry on doing great things no matter who is at the helm.
Folks, you have to make your mind up. You can’t have it both ways. Either CEOs play a pivotal part in the success of their companies or they don’t.
I’ve noticed from watching Apple diligently over the past decade — the iPhone decade — is that the transition from Jobs to Cook has changed how the company works at a fundamental level.
Some of those changes appear positive, others not so positive.
First, a little history.
The modern Apple began in 1997 when Jobs returned to the company as CEO and began a massive restructuring, changing the licensing terms for Macintosh clones so as to effectively kill them off, and pulling the company out of selling side products such as printers and servers. Jobs had a simple message to one product group: “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on such crappy products.”
Not only did this restructuring of both the physical company and its mission statement save Apple, but it also paved the way for the predecessor of the iPhone, the iPod.
The iPod was a massive — although not instant — hit for Apple, propelling the company from niche, somewhat geeky computer manufacturer to a household name. It was the iPod that made me realize that I needed to keep a close eye on Apple, because the company had something.
While I didn’t feel that I needed an iPod myself — my first iPod was a second-generation iPod Nano that I got in 2006, which is still going to this day — I couldn’t help but be blown away by the superiority of the product. Yes, the early iPods were expensive, especially once the cheap, generic “MP3 players” began flooding the market, but they oozed quality and felt like they had been designed with a laser-focus that was rare in a product, both back then in the early 2000s and now.
Remember that this was also the era of products such as the Compaq iPAQ PDA, which tried to do everything but ended up never being particularly good at anything (although I’ve lost count of how many I owned over the years).
While the iPod was huge, it was nothing compared to the iPhone. Unveiled exactly 10 years ago, it was once again a product designed and built with the idea of giving people features and functionality they didn’t know they needed until they began to use the device.
Don’t believe me? Look at how this single product totally changed the smartphone landscape. Look at what a typical smartphone looked like in 2006 (think Motorola RAZR, BlackBerry 8700, or Nokia E61), and what smartphones looked like in 2009 (Samsung Omnia, RIM BlackBerry Storm, or Motorola Droid). In a few years, we’d moved from small displays and keyboards to touchscreen devices with only a few buttons.
OK, enough with the history lesson. Where does Jobs fit into this?
One of the things that always impressed me about Jobs was how he understood the military principle of violent action. No, I don’t mean that he kicked down doors and put people into headlocks; what I mean is the way the company under his leadership executed plans.
Once Apple had a plan, and that plan was executed, it was then carried out with 100-percent energy and effort, with no time being wasted looking sideways at what the competition was up to. Jobs, and by association, the whole of Apple, exuded a confidence that was, and still is, rare. Jobs believed that Apple’s products were the best, and he would push that message unapologetically, even in the face of criticism or ridicule.
Remember Antennagate? The iPhone 4, when you held it a certain way, would lose reception. Jobs’ response to an owner who complained about the issue was legendary: “Just avoid holding it that way.”
Apple wasn’t afraid of taking risks either. The iPod was risky. The iPhone was risky. Building a whole new ecosystem of apps and third-party accessories around the iPhone was risky. But these risks paid off, and they paid off in part because the Jobs never seemed to blink in the face of adversity.
But as the founder of Apple, Jobs had a license to take risks. Would Apple be the success that it is today without Jobs? Well, given the state of the company in 1997, when Jobs took over as CEO for a second time after his resignation in 1985, it seems unlikely.
The company was a mess. Jobs turned it around. How much of that change — in terms of the ideas, the simplicity of the products, the unerring attention to quality, and the astonishingly successful marketing — was down to Jobs is not clear, but if nothing else, he clearly knew how to get the people within Apple to do some of their best work.
But sadly Jobs is now gone, and Cook is at the helm.
When Cook took over, some were concerned that Apple would lose its focus and return to the dark days. The idea is that the CEOs who take over from founder CEOs are less likely to take risks with the company because they inherited the company rather than built it (even if they were there since the early days).
While Apple under Cook has no doubt been highly successful, the only new category of hardware product that Apple has released since the company has been under his stewardship is the Apple Watch. And it has been difficult to measure the success of that product since Apple doesn’t disclose sales figures. Cook has also overseen a successful expansion of Apple’s services revenue.
It feels as though Cook is playing it safe and avoiding huge risks (at least that we know of). Rather than looking to new products, we’ve seen Cook work on broadening existing lines, resulting in SE and Plus versions of the iPhone and Pro versions of the iPad.
But, despite all that, cracks are beginning to show.
iPhone sales are starting to soften — by how much it’s hard to tell. But it’s happening. Since the iPhone is what brings in the biggest chunk of revenue and profits, this weakness will hit Apple’s bottom line hard and fast.
The iPad is also faltering. Sales have peaked and are now going in reverse. It’s still a wildly profitable business, but again, it’s losing steam under Cook’s watch.
Apple’s Mac lineup is also mostly old and stale, with hardware refreshes being few and far between. It also seems to have strayed away from the tight, focused hardware presentation that it once was. There’s also a heavy reliance on dongles in lieu of an assortment of physical ports. While this might be a short-term solution until things standardize on USB-C or wireless, right now it’s messy, clumsy, and kludgy.
Then there are highly niche products such as the Apple Watch Edition, which is nothing more than a hyper-expensive version of a regular Apple Watch encased in a fancy material. Someone needs to go down to that department and tell them they shouldn’t be wasting their time on such a crappy product.
On top of that, iTunes is a mess, iCloud is cumbersome and frustrating to use, and Apple Music and the App Store are cluttered and painful to use at times.
Even Apple’s advertising has become bland and wishy-washy, with iconic ad campaigns now a thing of the past.
One thing’s for sure, Cook has a lot of work to do over the coming months and years. And it’s likely — before another decade is out — that Apple will need to take one or more big, disruptive risks if it is to retain its dominant position. Will that be a car? Virtual reality or augmented reality? Smartglasses? Or perhaps something we’re totally not expecting.
Whatever it ends up being, there are interesting times ahead for Apple and the tech industry as a whole.