tim cook

Three Years Later: Tim Cook’s Apple

 

On September 9th, Apple will announce products likely to be seen as a new milestone in Tim Cook’s tenure as Apple’s CEO.

You Break It You Own It. This Labor Day weekend sits about midway between two  anniversaries: Tim Cook assumed the CEO mantel a little over three years ago – and Steve Jobs left this world – too soon – early October 2011. And, in a few days, Apple will announce new products, part of a portfolio that caused one of Cook’s lieutenants, Eddy Cue, to gush Apple had the “best product lineup in 25 Years”. Uttered at last Spring’s Code Conference, Cue’s saeta was so unusual it briefly disoriented Walt Mossberg, a seasoned interviewer if there ever was one. After a brief pause, Walt slowly asked Apple’s exec to repeat. Cue obliged with a big I Ate The Canary smile – and raised expectations that will soon meet reality.

After three years at the helm, we’ll soon know in what sense Tim Cook “owns” Apple. For having broken Steve’s creation, for having created a field of debris littered with occasionally recognizable remains of a glorious, more innovative, more elegant past. Or for having followed the spirit of Steve’s dictum – not to think of what he would have done – and led Apple to new heights.

For the past three years, detractors have relentlessly criticized Cook for not being Steve Jobs, for failing to bring out the Next Big Thing, for lacking innovation.
Too often, clickbaiters and other media mountebanks veered into angry absurdity. One recommended Cook buy a blazer to save his job; another told us he a direct line to Apple’s Board and knew directors were demanding more innovation from their CEO; and, last Spring, a Valley bloviator commanded Apple to bring out a smartwatch within 60 days – or else! (No links for these clowns.)

More measurably, critics pointed to slower revenue growth: + 9% in 2013 vs + 65% in 2011 and + 52% in 2010, the last two “Jobs Years”. Or the recent decrease in iPad sales: – 9% in the June 2014 quarter – a never-seen-before phenomenon for Apple products (I exclude the iPod, now turning into an ingredient of iPhones and iPads).

Through all this, Apple’s CEO never took the bait and, unlike Jobs, either ignored jibes, calmly exposed his counterpoint, or even apologized when warranted by the Maps fiasco. One known – and encouraging – exception to his extremely controlled public manner took place when he told a representative of a self-described conservative think-tank what to do with his demand “to commit right then and there to doing only those things that were profitable” [emphasis mine]:

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, […] I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”
and…
“If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Not everything that counts can be counted and… you know the rest of the proverb. Apple shareholders (not to be confused with pump-and-dump traders) at large seem to agree.

The not-taken road to perdition hasn’t been a road to perfection either. Skipping over normal, unavoidable irritants and bugs – the smell of sausage factories is still with me -

a look at Apple’s Mail client makes one wish for stronger actions than bug fixes leading to new crashes. This is a product, or people, that need stronger decision as they do not represent Apple at its best. Another long-time offender is the iTunes client. One unnamed Apple friend calls it “our Vista” and explains it might suffer from its laudable origin as a cross-platform Mac/Windows application, a feature vital to iPod’s success – we’ll recall its 2006 revenue ($7.7B, + 69% year-to-year growth!) was higher than the Mac’s ($7.4B, + 18%).

Now looking forward, we see this:

Apple Flint Center Barge

A large, cocooned structure being built by an “anonymous” company, next to Cupertino’s aptly named Flint Center for the Performing Arts, where Apple will unveil its next products this coming September 9th. Someone joked this was yet another instance of Apple’s shameless imitation of Google’s innovations. This time Apple copied Google’s barges, but could even get its own clone to float.

Seriously, this is good news. This is likely to be a demo house, one in which to give HomeKit, HealthKit or, who knows, payment systems demonstrations, features of the coming iOS 8 release for “communicating with and controlling connected accessories”. The size of the structure speaks for Apple’s ambitions.

On other good news, we hear Apple’s entry into “wearables”, or into the “smartwatch” field won’t see any shipments until 2015. The surprise here is that Apple would show or tease the product on 9/9. There have been exactly zero leaks of body parts, circuit boards, packages and other accessories, leading more compos mentis observers (not to be confused with compost mentis on Fox News) to think a near term announcement wasn’t in the cards. But John Paczkowski, a prudent ans well-informed re/code writer assures us Apple will indeed announce a “wearable” — only to tell us, two days later, it won’t ship until next year. The positive interpretation is this: Apple’s new wearable category isn’t just a thing, an gizmo, you can throw into the channel and get the money pump running – at nice but immaterial accessory rates. Rather, Apple’s newer creation is a function-rich device that needs commitment, software and partnerships, to make a material difference. For this it needs time. Hence the painful but healthy period of frustration. (Electronic Blue Balls, in the immortal words of Regis McKenna, the Grand Master of Silicon Valley Marketing, who was usually critical of firms making an exciting product announcement, only to delay customer gratification for months.)

The topic of payments is likely to be a little less frustrating – but could mead to another gusher of media commentary. Whether Apple partners with Visa, American Express or others is still a matter of speculation. But one thing is clear: this idea isn’t for Apple to displace or disintermediate any of the existing players. Visa, for example, will still police transactions. And Apple isn’t out to make any significant amount of money from payments.

The goal, as always, is to make Apple devices more helpful, pleasurable – and to sell more of these at higher margins as a result. Like HomeKit or HealthKit, it’s an ecosystem play.

There’s also the less surprising matter of new iPhones. I don’t know if there will be a 4.7” model, or a 5.5” model or both. To form the beginning of an opinion, I went to the Palo Alto Verizon store on University Avenue and asked to buy the 5” Lumia Icon Windows Phone on display. The sales person only expressed polite doubt and excused himself “to the back” to get one. It took eight minutes. The rest of the transaction was quick and I walked out of the store $143.74 lighter. I wanted to know how a larger phone would feel on a daily, jeans and jacket breast-pocket experience. It’s a little heavy (167 grams, about 50 grams more than an iPhone 5S), with a very nice, luminous screen and great Segoe WP system font:

Icon Lumia

I won’t review the phone or Windows Phone here. Others have said everything that needs to be said on the matter. It’s going to be a tough road for Microsoft to actually become a weighty number three in the smartphone race.

But mission accomplished: It feels like a larger iPhone, perhaps a tad lighter than the Lumia will deliver a pleasant experience. True, the one-handed use will probably be restricted to a subset of the (mostly male) population. And today’s 4” screen size will continue to be available.

There remains the question of what size exactly: 4.7”, or 5.5” (truly big), or both. For this I’ll leave readers in John Gruber’s capable hands. In a blog post titled Conjecture Regarding Larger iPhone Displays, John carefully computes possible pixel densities for both sizes and offers an clarifying discussion of “points”, an important iOS User Interface definition.

We’ll know soon.

As usual, the small matter of implementation remains. There are sure to be the usual hiccups to be corrected in .1 or .2 update in iOS 8. And there won’t be any dearth of bilious comments about prices and other entries on the well-worn list of Apple sins.

But I’ll be surprised if the public perception of Tim Cook’s Apple doesn’t take yet another turn for the better.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Apple Under Siege

 

Two years after Steve Jobs left us, Apple now wears Tim Cook’s imprint and, for all the doubt and perpetual doomsaying, seems to wear it well. One even comes to wonder if the Cassandras aren’t in fact doing Apple a vital favor.

Last Friday, Tim Cook issued a somber remembrance to Apple employees:

Team-
Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of Steve’s death. I hope everyone will reflect on what he meant to all of us and to the world. Steve was an amazing human being and left the world a better place. I think of him often and find enormous strength in memories of his friendship, vision and leadership. He left behind a company that only he could have built and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple. We will continue to honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to the work he loved so much. There is no higher tribute to his memory. I know that he would be proud of all of you.
Best,
Tim

I am one of the many who are in Steve’s debt and I miss him greatly. I consider him the greatest creator and editor of products this industry has ever known, and am awed by how he managed the most successful transformation of a company — and of himself — we’ve ever seen. I watched his career from its very beginning, I was fortunate to have worked with him, and I thoroughly enjoyed agreeing and disagreeing with him.

I tried to convey this in an October 9th, 2011 Monday Note titled Too Soon. I just re-read it and hope you’ll take the time to do the same. You’ll read words of dissent by Richard Stallman and Hamilton Nolan, but you’ll mostly find praise by Barack Obama, John Stewart, Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker, and this elegant image by Jonathan Mak:

steve_silouhette

Two years later, we can look at Apple under Tim Cook’s leadership. These haven’t been an easy twenty-four months: Company shares have gone on a wild ride, execs have been shown the door, there was the Maps embarrassment and apology, and there has been a product drought for most of the last fiscal year (ending in September).

All of this has provided fodder for the Fox Newsstands of the Web, for netwalkers seeking pageviews. The main theme is simple and prurient, hence its power: Without Steve, Apple is on the decline. The variations range from the lack of innovation — Where’s the Apple TV?, the iWatch?, the next Big Thing? — to The Decline of The Brand, Android Is Winning, and Everything Will Be Commoditized.

Scan Philip Ellmer-DeWitt’s Apple 2.0 or John Gruber’s Daring Fireball and treat yourself to intelligent repudiations of this incessant “claim chowder“, discredited pontifications. I’ll extract a few morsels from my own Evernote stash:

Apple’s press conference showed a brand unraveling, or so said VentureBeat in March, 2012. Eighteen months later, Apple passed Coca-Cola to become the world’s most valuable brand.

How Tim Cook can save himself (and Apple), subtitled, for good measure: What the confused Apple CEO can do to avoid getting canned and having to slink away with nothing but his $378 million compensation package as comfort. Penned by a communications consultant who “teaches public relations at NYU”, the article features an unexpected gem: Cook should buy a blazer. You know, “to break the deleterious chokehold of the Steve Jobs’ [sic] legacy”.

Apple: The Beginning of a Long Decline? (note the hedging question mark.) This LinkedIn piece, which questions the value of the fingerprint sensor, ends with a lament:

There was no sign of a watch. So those of us in Silicon Valley are left watching, wondering, and feeling a little empty inside… Jobs is gone. It looks like Apple’s magic is slowly seeping away now too.

Shortly thereafter, Samsung’s iWatch killer came out…and got panned by most reviewers.

Last: Apple’s Board of Directors are concerned about Apple’s pace of innovation, says Fox Business News Charlie Gasparino, who claims to have “reliable sources”.

Considering how secretive the company is, can anyone imagine a member of Apple’s Board blabbing to a Fox Business News irrespondent?

Despite the braying of the visionary sheep, Tim Cook never lost his preternatural calm, he never took the kommentariat’s bait. Nor have his customers: They keep buying, enjoying, and recommending Apple’s products. And they do so in such numbers — 9 million new iPhones sold in the launch weekend — that Apple had to file a Form 8-K with the Security and Exchanges Commission (SEC) to “warn” shareholders that revenue and profits would exceed the guidance they had provided just two months ago when management reviewed the results of the previous quarter.

In Daniel Eran Dilger’s words, Data bites dogma: Apple’s iOS ate up Android, Blackberry U.S. market share losses this summer:

Apple’s increase accounted for 1.5 of the 1.6 percentage points that Android and Blackberry collectively lost. This occurred a full month before the launch of Apple’s iPhone 5s and 5c and the deployment of iOS 7.

Regarding the “Apple no longer innovates” myth, Jay Yarow tells us why Apple Can’t Just ‘Innovate’ A New Product Every Other Year. His explanation draws from a substantial New York Times Magazine article in which Fred Vogelstein describes the convergence of company-wide risk-taking and engineering feats that resulted in the iPhone:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. 

It’s a great read. But even Vogelstein can’t resist the temptation of inserting a word of caution: “And yet Apple today is under siege…” 

This is something I heard 33 years ago when I signed up to start Apple France in 1980, and I’ve heard it constantly since then. I’ll again quote Horace Dediu, who best summarizes the concern:

“[There's a] perception that Apple is not going to survive as a going concern. At this point of time, as at all other points of time in the past, no activity by Apple has been seen as sufficient for its survival. Apple has always been priced as a company that is in a perpetual state of free-fall. It’s a consequence of being dependent on breakthrough products for its survival. No matter how many breakthroughs it makes, the assumption is (and has always been) that there will never be another. When Apple was the Apple II company, its end was imminent because the Apple II had an easily foreseen demise. When Apple was a Mac company its end was imminent because the Mac was predictably going to decline. Repeat for iPod, iPhone and iPad. It’s a wonder that the company is worth anything at all.”

I recently experienced a small epiphany: I think the never-ending worry about Apple’s future is a good thing for the company. Look at what happened to those who were on top and became comfortable with their place under the sun: Palm, Blackberry, Nokia…

In ancient Rome, victorious generals marched in triumph to the Capitol. Lest the occasion go to the army commander’s head, a slave would march behind the victor, murmuring in his ear, memento mori, “remember you’re mortal”.

With that in mind, one can almost appreciate the doomsayers — well, some of them. They might very well save Apple from becoming inebriated with their prestige and, instead, force the company to remember, two years later and counting, how they won it.

JLG@mondaynote.com