Three years in, we’re seeing the mark Tim Cook is making on Apple

Stepping out of Steve Jobs’ shadow?
Stepping out of Steve Jobs’ shadow?
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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You break it you own it

This week sits about midway between two anniversaries: Tim Cook assumed the Apple 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 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 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 had 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.”


“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, 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 the people behind it—that need stronger direction, 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 ($7.7 billion, +69% year-to-year growth!) was higher than the Mac’s ($7.4 billion, +18%).

Now looking forward, we see this:

Image for article titled Three years in, we’re seeing the mark Tim Cook is making on Apple

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 9. 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 HomeKitHealthKit 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.

In 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 September 9. There have been exactly zero leaks of body parts, circuit boards, packages and other accessories, leading more compos mentis observers to think a near-term announcement wasn’t in the cards. But John Paczkowski, a prudent and 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, a 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 lead 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:

screenshot of phone interaction
(Jean-Louis Gassée)

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 a 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 Cook’s Apple doesn’t take yet another turn for the better.

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