What If Cook Really Isn't a Product Guy?
It's hard to say Tim Cook has been anything but a great chief executive for Apple. Just look at the company's quarterly earnings. But there was a small, brief comment made by Steve Jobs in his official biography that may have planted a tiny seed of doubt about Cook's product vision in the minds of Apple fans. That seed may be what's sprouted into the recent talk about Scott Forstall.
01/19/12 5:00 AM PT
At first, I was surprised to see the flurry of blog and comment traffic recently over Scott Forstall, the Apple "CEO-in-waiting," as portrayed by a new book about Apple coming out next week.
I thought, What's wrong with current CEO Tim Cook? Is he going somewhere? Didn't he just get a bunch of new compensation packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars? And weren't some of these packages designed to keep top Apple management working at Apple?
I thought, Where is this coming from? Why is this getting attention?
And then it hit me. First, this appeared to be a carefully packaged promotional excerpt designed to catch attention and drum up excitement for the book, which is Adam Lashinsky's Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired - and Secretive - Company Really Works. The book comes on the heels of the widely popular authorized biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
But why did it catch so much attention? Is Forstall that amazing? He's been on the stage at Apple's announcements before, and he leads Apple's iOS software division. He's 42 or 43 years old or so, he has the spikiest shock of hair among Apple's senior managers, and he perhaps may exude a greater sense of energy than the others. He's not Steve Jobs, but then again, no one else is either. Why him?
For starters, he was with Jobs at NEXT; he was partly responsible for Mac OS X, most notably the Leopard release; he has a master's degree in computer science from Stanford, so he's at least reasonably intelligent; plus, he runs the iOS group, which has been responsible for Apple's transformation into a revenue-generating, smartphone-leading behemoth. Oh, and he's reportedly ambitious in way that's not entirely focused on products.
Of course, a lot of this is hard to pin down, really, because Forstall didn't talk to Lashinsky for the book, which was put together based on interviews of former employees and businesspeople who had worked with Apple in one form or another. That doesn't mean the pictures are inaccurate, just that they might not be. Or they may only represent just slices of the whole truth.
But Jobs Didn't Tap Him
When Jobs left the office in Cupertino for his various medical leaves of absence, Cook, as chief operating officer for Apple, took over the CEO duties. By all rights and measures, he did an excellent job, leading Apple to greater and greater sales and revenue. In fact, Apple's vast strides in supply chain efficiencies are attributed to Cook's tenacity and efforts to reduce waste and acquire (and lock up, when possible) components at the lowest possible prices. Cook's influence is not only seen in Apple's books and its nearly insane levels of profitability, but it's also reflected in the prices of competing products. What do I mean?
Two examples. First, the MacBook Air. The super-slim notebook appears to have a high cost of acquisition associated with it. It's expensive. But expensive is a relative term. It's expensive compared to a Dell notebook that's three times as thick, weighs twice as much, and sports faster processors and more memory. But compared to the efforts of other computer manufacturers to create similarly thin notebooks with similar levels of quality and feature parity, it's not expensive at all. A while back, Intel was reportedly even trying to offer incentives to spark PC manufacturers into creating thin notebook PCs that could compete with the MacBook Air.
Second, the iPad. When it first came out, I remember a lot of jabber about it being too expensive. Heck, I might have even complained about the cost. But then people started liking it and buying it anyway. And while it still seemed expensive, it remained really cool.
But then a curious thing happened: A few other full-size tablets hit the market, and guess what? They weren't appreciably less expensive. In some cases, they were more expensive than the iPad 2. So much for Android letting manufacturers kill off the iPad by producing cheap alternatives. It was only much later that companies with big pockets like Amazon and Barnes & Noble managed to create a truly consumer-compelling alternative for just a couple hundred dollars. Even so, these other tablets, like the Kindle Fire, are smaller and contain far fewer features.
Prices fluctuate, of course, but my point is this: For months, Apple was able to create innovative new products at price points that most other PC manufacturers couldn't touch. Why? Based on what I've heard about Tim Cook and read about him here and there, he had the detailed ability to reduce Apple's entire supply chain to its essence. Apple's supply chain may be one of the most efficient in the world. Plus, I bet it rivals defense contractors for its levels of secrecy.
It takes more than just $80 billion-plus in cash to make this happen, and Cook pretty much gets most of the credit. If Cook weren't able to ensure Apple's ability to produce millions and millions of products for worldwide delivery, quickly, then Apple would not be the world's most valuable tech company. If you can't ship it, you can't really sell it.
It's not surprising that Cook won the respect of Jobs.
The Big Fat 'But'
So if Cook is a master manager, then why did this little snippet about Forstall leap into the collective Apple-oriented mind this week?
Maybe it's because just one little paragraph in Isaacson's biography makes real a small fear shared by long-time Apple lovers who pay attention to the company:
"I'm a good negotiator, but he's probably better than me because he's a cool customer," Jobs later said. After adding a bit more praise, he quietly added a reservation, one that was serious but rarely spoken: "But Tim's not a product person, per se."
I don't know that Apple would have been able to rise so valiantly if Jobs hadn't found Cook. While there was only one Steve Jobs, there aren't that many Tim Cooks in the world, either. Maybe Jobs is wrong. Maybe Cook really is a product person, but it's hard to easily see it shine through. I don't get the impression that holding a new iPhone is a magical experience for him. Sure, he might appreciate it, but to marvel at it, see it and feel wonder and joy ... it's hard to get that impression out of his mostly stoic demeanor that we've seen in tiny bits and pieces over the years.
So yeah, there's fear now that Steve Jobs is gone. How long will his product roadmap last? How long can Cook execute that roadmap like none other? At what point will there be a moment when the design for a new iPhone will require a big hairy decision? Might the design look cool but create major hardships for the engineers at Apple to make it function properly? At incredible cost? What if the design is lackluster? Who will step in and put the brakes on and make everyone start over and get it right? We know Jobs could do that. Can Cook do it? We imagine that he has the will and strength, but what do his eyes see? Are they art-loving eyes? Is the tactile feel of a device important to his hands and everyday life experience?
We don't know.
So yeah, with these kinds of questions, it's no wonder that Forstall can suddenly seem like a possible successor to Cook.
Either way, personally, I'm displacing my worry entirely for at least two years. I figure we have two years of great products on the way before the roadmap gets fuzzy and competitors get much better. In the meantime, I'll be waiting for Lashinsky's book next week.