"You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company." - Steve Jobs, 2004
Sir Jonathan Ive
I've been thinking about Apple CEO Tim Cook and the company's design guru, Sir Jonathan Ive. It started when former VP Scott Forestall was fired and Sir Jony was put in charge of the look and feel of iOS 7. As more rumors about the iOS makeover began to come out, I became convinced: working with the software designers is one of many steps in Tim Cook training him to takeover Apple some day.
Don't mistake that as me saying Tim Cook needs to be replaced. Mr. Cook has been an amazing CEO for Apple, and I think he was the only person on the planet who could have successfully taken over for Steve Jobs. One of his many responsibilities is to ensure that the vaunted culture of Apple is maintained, and finding his own successor is surely part of that job.
Let's go back to 2009 and 2010 when it was clear that Steve Jobs was still very ill. I think all of us had a sort of reality distortion field helping us believe that Mr. Jobs could will himself back to good health, but as the months went on we would occasionally talk about who could replace him in our TMO staff meetings.
The obvious choice was Tim Cook. After all, he had been named as interim CEO every time Steve Jobs took a leave of absence. That made him the heir apparent.
Product Guys vs. Marketing Guys
Something about that didn't make sense to me, though. Why would Steve Jobs pick an operations guy to run his company after so many years of talking about the importance of putting product guys* in charge of product companies?
To wit, here's what Steve Jobs had to say on the subject in October of 2004 in a BusinessWeek interview:
You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company. Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise, you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe. But it doesn't add up to much. That's what was missing at Apple for a while. There were bits and pieces of interesting things floating around, but not that gravitational pull.
People always ask me why did Apple really fail for those years, and it's easy to blame it on certain people or personalities. Certainly, there was some of that. But there's a far more insightful way to think about it. Apple had a monopoly on the graphical user interface for almost 10 years. That's a long time. And how are monopolies lost? Think about it. Some very good product people invent some very good products, and the company achieves a monopoly.
But after that, the product people aren't the ones that drive the company forward anymore. It's the marketing guys or the ones who expand the business into Latin America or whatever. Because what's the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself?
So a different group of people start to move up. And who usually ends up running the show? The sales guy. John Akers at IBM (IBM ) is the consummate example. Then one day, the monopoly expires for whatever reason. But by then the best product people have left, or they're no longer listened to. And so the company goes through this tumultuous time, and it either survives or it doesn't.
Tim Cook isn't a sales guy, a marketing guy, or a bean counter (Steve Jobs was also critical of putting accountants in charge of product companies), but that doesn't make him a product guy. In his public appearances since taking over as CEO, Tim Cook has worked to show his product bona fides, but while he may like products, he's an operations guy at his core.
Back to the last few years of Steve Jobs's life, if promoting Tim Cook was a violation of the "product guy" line, who could it be? Scott Forestall? He seemed too young, too raw. Jonny Ive? Yeah, he's a product guy, but it didn't seem like he had the technology chops to run a technology company. He didn't seem to like the spotlight, either, appearing at Apple keynotes in video interviews rather than live presentations.
We kept coming back to Tim Cook, and that looked more and more certain as Steve Jobs's health problems continued. As we know now, of course, that's exactly what happened. Tim Cook taking over was what Steve Jobs planned, and Mr. Cook is CEO today.
One of the things that Mr. Cook has talked about in his public interviews is the importance of maintaining Apple's culture. At D11, he was asked how he's different from Steve Jobs. He answered, "In a ton of different ways. But in the most important ways, we're the same. Keeping the culture of Apple. That's the most important." [Emphasis added]
He also talked about how the same culture of innovation remains at Apple more than 18 months after the death of Steve Jobs. This is a theme he has repeated in the face of questions about Apple's ability to come up with cool new products.
Maintaining the culture of Apple. That's a big thing. We know about Apple University, a school of sorts designed internally by some top-notch people. Apple University is designed to help Apple's executives learn to think like Apple people, which really means like Steve Jobs. To that end, this was a project that Mr. Jobs devoted lots of time to before he died.
That sort of thing is important, but the next generation of leaders is even more so. I believe that Tim Cook holds it a near-sacred duty to get that right. I believe he thinks he owes it to Steve Jobs. I have gathered this from his body English and other tells when he has spoken on the issue. I can't prove it, but I am convinced of my read.
Again with the Who?
So who would that be? Scott Forstall was, I think, the top candidate, but he went and got himself fired. Before he got fired, he also managed to make people like hardware god Bob Mansfield quit (he came back when Mr. Forstall was terminated), while Jonathan Ive refused to attend meetings with him unless Tim Cook was also present (it was reportedly mutual).
Some, like my friend Dave Hamilton, believe this makes Scott Forstall the second coming of Steve Jobs. Literally. They believe that because he was fired, he'll be able to come back to Apple in, say, five years, and "save" the company.
Maybe. The comparisons between Mr. Forstall and Steve Jobs are many. They were both brilliant, insanely driven, and interested in precisely one thing: they're vision of the world. Both men were known to take credit for the work of others, too.
But there are some differences, and they are noted. For instance, Steve Jobs often admitted he was wrong and apologized for his mistakes. It was reportedly Mr. Forstall's refusal to apologize for rolling out Apple Maps before it was ready that cost him his job.
I think the fact that Mr. Forstall alienated people that Steve Jobs respected is also a telling sign of some shortcomings.
But who knows? Maybe a few years to grow and mature outside of the confines of Apple will be just the thing to teach Mr. Forstall some perspective. This certainly happened for Steve Jobs. The 11 or so years he spent building (and largely failing) with NeXT and making Pixar into a monster powerhouse certainly changed him.
What about Sir Jonathan? Walter Isaacson described Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive as soul mates in his biography, Steve Jobs. The man was knighted for his contributions to design and aesthetics, and he is probably the most highly regarded industrial designer on the planet.
On the damned planet.
That's something, but does it qualify him to run Apple? Probably not by itself. Apple's CEO needs to be able to understand operations, marketing, and be able to talk to engineers and designers. Sir Jony has at least one of those things, but he's not shown the outside world the ability to do any of the others.
There's more to being CEO of Apple, of course, and it's a process that will take many years, but it starts here.
That's where iOS 7 comes in. He's in the process of redesigning it. He's throwing skeuomorphism away and bringing in a look and feel for iOS that's been called "black and white and flat all over." Here's his chance to show the world that he can do much more than design beautiful hardware.
We're going to see it on Monday, too. Apple is kicking off WWDC on Monday with a keynote, and the two things that are confirmed for the event are iOS 7 and OS X 10.9, the next version of the Mac's OS.
I think that Tim Cook put Sir Jony in charge of iOS 7's look and feel as the first step to training the designer to be more than a designer. To be someone who can direct engineers. To be someone who is more than "just" the world's top designer and just as much of a product guy as Steve Jobs. Getting his hands dirty on the software side of things will be key to his transformation.
If he can do the job, I believe we'll see him get more responsibility at Apple as time goes on, and that this will culminate with him being named the next CEO of Apple when Tim Cook steps aside to be chairman of the board.
On Monday, we're going to see Sir Jony live on stage showing us his handiwork with redesigning the look and feel of iOS, reaching out to developers in the process.
I'll even go so far as to say that if we do see him live, it's not necessarily proof that I am right, but that if we don't, it's proof that I am wrong, and that he's "merely" stepping up to fix a problem that needed fixing.
I hope that I am right. I think that with the right experience, Sir Jony would make a great CEO for Apple, assuring another generation of amazing products.
* "Guy" is Steve Jobs's word. I'd like to assume that this includes women, but the reality is that there are no women in Apple's top executive ranks, at least not on the engineering side. Katie Cotton is in charge of Apple's PR department, and Nancy Heinen was Apple's General Counsel before she fell on the backdated options grenade. In any event, this is well outside the scope of this already long column.