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Shady Illuminations

Whose Product Line Is It Anyway?

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  Why Steve Jobs will be missed and Tim Cook will be fine.  

First of all, no, you are not the first person to notice that Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook looks like Ryan Styles of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (Both the original British series with the wonderful Clive Anderson as host and the American version with the execrable Drew Carey.)

It’s mostly in his official photo, I think; in person Cook looks less like a 6'6" former fish processor and Carol Channing impersonator. I bring all this up to head off what I see as possible embarassments in Cook’s future: Ryan Styles showing up at the next MacWorld Expo impersonating Cook, Cook delivering his keynote in a style suggested by audience members, or anything involving Drew Carey.

Second, no, Apple isn’t going to flop like a food cart in a hurricane with the departure of Steve Jobs as CEO.

The Tim Cook Era Wasn’t Born Yesterday

My second thought when I read that Jobs was resigning was, “Who’s replacing Tim Cook as COO?” (My first thought was about Steve, and I’ll reserve that. Even if I can occasionally get sentimental, I don’t do sentimental.)

Apple’s success isn’t all about product design and strategy. Apple also happens to be a remarkably efficient operation. That efficiency is every bit as important to Apple’s success, and it is the work of Apple’s new CEO. Tim Cook’s been running the operation for years as COO, with an occasional stint as stand-in CEO, with remarkable efficiency, and there’s no reason for the wheels to suddenly fall off the locomotive he built.

Apple’s near-term future is in Tim Cook’s immediate past. Apple’s suppliers don’t think Steve’s departure will make much difference. You have to assume that’s because of their time horizon. Apple’s suppliers are in a position to know what’s coming down the pipeline in the next year and to have an idea what may be coming a couple of years out, and both Jobs and Cook have their fingerprints on all of that. So it’ll be some time before the product line starts to reflect Tim Cook exclusively rather than Steve Jobs.

So, near-term, no problem. Assuming that Cook doesn’t screw up.

If your cash and cred determine how much slack you get when you screw up, Apple under Tim Cook is slack-rich. More so than, say, Microsoft under Steve Ballmer, a CEO who has taken all the rope Microsoft’s cash and cred has given him. And you know what they say about giving him enough rope. Apple can make a lot of mistakes so long as it corrects them quickly. As it did under Steve Jobs.

Strategically, Apple can coast. A company’s culture and strategy is most likely to change when the company is in trouble. Think HP. That’s when companies tinker with the basics: when they aren’t working. Companies that are on top of the world with tons of cash and a market valuation above the clouds don’t mess with the formula. Apple can coast for years, milking the current products and their obvious upgrades and the new products already in the pipeline.

And given what’s probably in the pipeline, Apple’s coasting will look like another company’s bold ventures.

And beyond that? What happens when Apple moves beyond Jobs-influenced products and strategies?

Interesting question, to which the Magic Eight Ball says, “Ask again later.” Several years from now, we will be able to see what post-Jobs Apple looks like. But anybody trying to predict that far out in this industry is just guessing. Which is a well-paid job in tech journalism.

The Thrill Is Gone

So am I saying that Steve Jobs leaving isn’t important? No, I’m not that ignorant. Here’s how ignorant I am: I don’t know the secret of Steve Jobs’s success. This apparently makes me unique among commentators on technology.

Every B-school graduate and tech pundit knows that there’s a secret to what makes Jobs tick, and that only they understand it. Well, I don’t know much, but I do know stupid. Not one of them knows what makes Jobs tick. Only one person knows what makes Steve Jobs tick, and that’s Steve. And if he were even remotely secretive about it, all you could do would be to guess.

But Jobs has been telling us for years. He’s spelled out his philosophy in detail, and anybody who wants to emulate him has only to embrace that philosophy. He’s told his competitors all they need to know to do as he does, for crying out loud, and they don’t. He’s told the pundits all they need to know to understand his success, and they still flounder about trying to guess.

Mostly, I think, because they don’t believe him.

They don’t believe him when he says he doesn’t care about money. But it’s clearly true. During the whole stock options embarassment, Jobs’s defense was that he didn’t know anything about that stuff. I believed it.

It may be the fact that he actually doesn’t care about money that makes it so hard for people to understand what he does. To a lot of people in business, the phrase “doesn’t care about money” is not a meaningful string of words.

They don’t believe him when he says he doesn’t care what users think they want. The idea of going with your gut and your own sense of what works without ratifying it with focus group data or social media feedback or something just seems so wildly risky that they can’t grasp that Steve doesn’t see it as risky. For him, it isn’t a strategy, it’s a value.

Maybe the biggest thing they don’t get is the concept of design as Steve Jobs embraces it. This pontification is typical of the pundits saying, “you don’t understand what has made Apple great, but I do.” All the “reality” points this guy offers up as his brilliant insights are what Steve Jobs has always said, and they’re all about design.

I couldn’t teach a course in Jobs-style product design, but I can spot somebody who doesn’t get it a mile away: they talk about eye candy and putting a pretty face on it. Even I know that for Jobs, design goes clear to the bone. I know this not because I’m in on the secret, but because that’s what he’s been saying forever.

They don’t believe him when he says it’s all about saying “no.” Jobs is the master of saying no. He doesn’t design or invent or dream up products. The people at Apple who do those things are still doing those things. Jobs approves other people’s projects. By which, of course, I mean that he rejects them. The few projects that survive a long series of rejections become products. By then they’ve had almost all the rough edges beaten off them.

I know this because it’s there for all to see, and because Steve Jobs has pointed it out repeatedly. There is no secret. He is the person he claims to be.

They don’t believe him when he says he lives each day in the knowledge that it could be his last. That is hard to believe, but Jobs has had more than one opportunity to look death in the face. He means it. Steve Jobs is not an enigma. He’s this guy. He’s this guy.

Roll the Closing Credits

I’m not saying that Apple will keep growing and wowing the rubes. Even with Jobs at the helm, just where do you imagine Apple was going to go next? Is there some bell they could ring that would peal as loudly as the iPod, the iPhone, iTunes, the iPad? Or the numbers picture? Once you’re on top, it’s hard to move up. Once you have a reputation for knocking the customers’s socks off, important but non-sock-knocking innovations look like failures. Apple is going to get boring simply because it’s time to get boring. No matter who’s the CEO.

Plus, they’re still leaving iPhone prototypes in bars, so clearly nothing fundamental has changed.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. When he realized how boring the computer industry was going to become with Steve Jobs’s departure from the CEO office, he knew that was what he wanted to write about this month. Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.