He's probably the world's most scrutinized CEO. Following in the footsteps of near-demi-God Steve Jobs, Apple's chief Tim Cook has had one of the most unenviable early tenures in the corner office in recent memory.
Based on his performances to date, especially at this week's kickoff to the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, he's doing just fine. Eight months into his life as CEO of the world's top tech company, he's begun to shake off early criticisms that he couldn't fill the iconic co-founder's shoes. The signs at WWDC — and in the months leading up to the company's marquee annual developer show-and-tell event — that this is now Tim Cook's Apple are easy to see:
Steve Jobs famously hated speaking to investors and analysts. If he could be convinced to attend meetings at all, he rarely shared much insight that analysts didn't already know. Cook, on the other hand, has attended a number of analyst round-tables since his appointment, and has willingly pulled the veil back on Apple's inner workings. His handling of the controversy around conditions at Chinese contractor Foxconn is particularly illuminating. While Jobs largely dismissed criticisms of alleged abuses there, Cook actually visited the plant and Apple has joined the Fair Labor Association, an industry group that monitors contract plants and independently reports what it finds.
For all his brilliance in dissecting the consumer mindset, Jobs could be a difficult boss, and he reigned over product planning meetings with a bombastic sense of micromanagement. Tales of his profanity-laced tirades reducing senior engineers and other staff to tears are near legendary. Cook reportedly takes a lower-key, friendlier, less confrontational approach.
When Steve Jobs introduced a new product, the focus was clearly on him. He was the company's central showman, and although he often shared the stage with underlings, it was still very much his universe. As much as observers waited for news on the products themselves, the man's words, presentation style, even tone of voice were often just as scrutinized in the inevitable post-event assessments.
Tim Cook's on-stage style is significantly more collaborative, with other senior members of his team typically handling most of the major product announcement heavy lifting. Yesterday, after delivering the usual round of blockbuster sales stats with the crowd, he handed things off to a troika of SVPs, including global marketing chief Phil Schiller, software engineering guru Craig Federighi and iOS lead Scott Forstall, before returning for the roundup.
Cook made headlines last month when he voluntarily forfeited approximately $75 million in dividend payments on vested shares to "set an example" over pay. He can certainly afford it — those shares alone, which were awarded to him in January as an incentive for him to remain with Apple until 2021, are worth about $571 million based on yesterday's closing share value. But the move stands in stark contrast to Mark Zuckerberg's cashing in $1 billion immediately following Facebook's IPO, and sends a message that money isn't the central driver for him.
Jobs was a hardware showman at heart. Whether it was an iPhone, an iPad or a super-thin MacBook Air, his defining moments often had him standing on stage with one of his new devices in his hand, extolling its virtues. Cook doesn't do physical reveals with the same panache, but none of that matters, as under his leadership hardware has subtly taken a back seat to software. Sure, the retina-display MacBook Pro is droolworthy, but the final presentation slot, always reserved for the most important announcement of the day, went to iOS 6. Jobs wouldn't have been able to spin that around for the camera: For Cook, that no longer matters.
To be fair, eight months is barely long enough to fully assess the new leader's long-term ability to steer the company. The products announced this week are evolutions of devices and platforms that were introduced and evolved firmly within Jobs's tenure, and it'll be a while yet before the Jobs pipeline winds down and is replaced by Cook-initiated products. The long-rumoured television offering remains under wraps, and even the next big expected announcement — the iPhone 5 later this year — will likely be more evolution than revolution.
Outside the cheering WWDC crowd, investors confirmed their doubts that Cook hasn't completely emerged from his predecessor's shadow as they shaved 1.5 per cent off of Apple's stock in the hours following the keynote. Despite quarter after quarter of record-breaking revenue growth, concerns over Cook's ability to maintain Apple's pre-transition momentum remain. It'll take more than a switch from mock turtleneck to untucked collared shirts over jeans to convince everyone that Cook has what it takes to complete the transition. What's clear from WWDC is he's well on his way to making the company his as he works to prove the naysayers wrong.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.