Apple's CEO Alchemy Attempts Could Be Bad Chemistry
It's all but impossible for Apple CEO Tim Cook to make public appearances without drawing comparisons to his charismatic predecessor. Yet it seems that Apple is choosing to put Cook into high-profile situations instead of allowing his persona to evolve organically over time, as Jobs' did. Is Apple making a mistake in trying to maintain a personality-driven company image?
05/30/12 2:00 PM PT
On Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook sat down with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg for an in-depth interview at D: All Things Digital. Cook's appearance kicked off the conference, which runs through Thursday in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
Cook promised that Apple was working on new -- and even incredible -- products, but he gave no actual details. The bigger issue is whether Apple is trying to transform Cook into a "personality" who can fill the void left by the death last fall of founder Steve Jobs.
"I think that is a fair assessment," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-It. "It appears there is an attempt to create chemistry that actually happened very organically with Steve Jobs."
Can Cook Handle the Job?
Since returning to Apple in 1996, Jobs became more than just the company's CEO -- he became the face of Apple. Trying to create a Jobs clone with Cook could be a risky strategy.
"I understand the exercise from a marketing perspective, but pulling this off isn't going to be easy," King told MacNewsWorld. "A lot of pieces in this puzzle simply don't line up. The mystique of Jobs was around his role at Apple and the way he could master an audience."
Of course this mystique came at a price. Jobs was essentially forced out of the company he cofounded, but 20 years later called it the "best thing that could have ever happened." His time in the wilderness allowed him to find his passion.
"He was founder of Apple and yet driven out by conventional executives who felt the company lost its way," said King. "But the truth is that the company did lose its way. He spent his time in the desert like any good messiah and learned from his mistakes. He returned and transformed Apple into the most profitable company in the world. That is a hard act to follow."
Moreover, it could be a hard act for someone who has moved from company to company, as Cook has done in his more traditional career.
Big Shoes to Fill
After Jobs' return, Apple became very much personality-driven, and it isn't clear if there is another personality who can easily step in.
"No knock on Tim Cook, but those are a tough pair of shoes to fill," said King.
While Jobs founded Apple after dropping out of college and transformed it after his return, Cook comes from a more corporate background -- serving as a VP at Compaq and as a director at IBM.
The other concern is that Cook comes into a company on top. When Jobs returned to Apple, the company wasn't profitable and had seen its relevance in the market shrink. Jobs turned Apple around with successful products, including the MacBook, iPod, iPhone and iPad, but he also managed to avoid scrutiny for the failures under his watch.
"Frankly, as many masterful successes that occurred under Jobs, there were some massive duds as well -- such as Apple TV," said King.
The question is, even if Cook can fill the shoes, can he lead through successes and failures?
"Tim Cook is a smart guy and has been with the company for a long time," Josh Crandall of Netpop Research told MacNewsWorld. "He should be the least of the company's concerns. Maintaining excellent product development management and excellent taste through the organization is the tricky part."
Beyond the Jobs Mystique
The other equation is whether Cook needs to create a persona at all. Instead, he might just need to be the guy who makes the hard decisions, such as his efforts to streamline Apple's supply chain, which included closing factories and warehouses.
That sort of thing doesn't create a cult of personality, but as the latest Apple iPad launch proved this year, personality isn't always needed to sell products.
"From the commercial standpoint, Jobs had a 'distortion field' of sorts that could capture an audience," added King.
"He leveraged that into a mythological persona, and he really kept the company laser focused on quality and user experience," he explained.
"There is no reason that Apple can't stay laser focused under Tim Cook," said King, "but they are going to have to do it without a distortion field. And that could be a difficult challenge for them over time."