As we gathered around our radios to listen to Tim Cook’s Fireside Chat with the analysts at Goldman Sachs on Tuesday, we expected to hear about Chinese working conditions (we did), iPad trademarks (we didn’t), iPhone unit shipments (we did), and what Apple plans to do with the $97 billion in cash it holds (we did).
What we didn’t expect to hear was that Tim Cook is passionate about Apple’s products, but we did; and we didn’t expect to hear him choke up when talking about his role as Apple’s CEO, but we heard that, too.
Tim Cook: Product Guy?
While his comments about a possible Apple dividend will be latched on by Wall Street as the big take away from his speech at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference, as fans of Apple’s products it was Mr. Cook’s passion that all of us in TMO Towers took as the coolest news from his speech.
As a huge believer in context being the king of all things, let me put this in perspective: Steve Jobs was a product guy. Steve Jobs talked about the importance of having product guys (or gals, I’m just using “product guy” as a convenient label) being in charge of companies that make products. To that end, he disparaged Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as being a marketing guy and how much not having a product guy had hurt that company.
This was a message I bought into. When Steve Jobs pointed it out to me, and I could apply what he said to the results I held in my own hands in the form of Apple products, it made a lot of sense. Apple believed in making a profit by making great products, and making great products is not something bean counters (Leo Apotheker at HP) or marketing guys (Steve Ballmer at Microsoft) can usually do.
As a fan of Apple products for so many years, the proof was in the pudding to me. Apple’s execs said again and again they focused on making great products that people would want to buy and let the profits take care of themselves. Why couldn’t everybody do that?
Then Mr. Jobs got sick and Tim Cook was named acting CEO of Apple. And then Mr. Jobs got even sicker and it became obvious that Mr. Cook was going to remain acting CEO. At the end of last year, it became official: Steve Jobs resigned as CEO and Tim Cook ascended to the throne as the actual CEO.
BUT WAIT?!? Tim Cook isn’t a product guy?!? He’s an operations guy, for god’s sake! What the hell? What happened to the importance of having a product guy at the helm of a company like Apple? Why not Jony Ive or Scott Forstall or something?! Those guys are product guys, right?
Well, yes. They are product guys, and it wouldn’t surprise me even a tiny bit if either one of them (especially Scott Forstall) became CEO of Apple some time in the future, but for now Tim Cook is the man. He was being rewarded for all his time and effort at manning the shop while Steve Jobs was sick, for having kept the company’s stock going up even while Steve Jobs, the master visionary, battled the illness that would eventually take his life.
How would this affect Apple? What will happen as Tim Cook the operations guy runs the company? Who will make all those key product decisions that Steve Jobs was so famous for making?
It turns out those of us thinking along those lines may have been mistaken. Yeah, it was only one interview, and it was only a few minutes with that interview at that, but what TMO’s staff heard was a passion for making great products that we’d never heard from Tim Cook before.
It wasn’t the words themselves, either, it was the way he said them. It began when he asked about Siri and how that technology fit into Apple. He said:
For years, if you were a PC or a Mac user, you used a physical keyboard and you used a mouse for input. There’s been evolution in that space, but not a lot of revolution, and then all of a sudden Apple comes out with MultiTouch on the MacBook Pro, and then extended that into Phones and tablets…
Like I said, it wasn’t the words, it was the passion with which he said them. He described Siri as this technology that he couldn’t imagine doing without now that he’s experienced it.
“This product…this beta product,” he said, and there was what I believe was genuine wonder in his voice. It was the kind of thing we got used to hearing from Steve Jobs, but we haven’t heard it from Tim Cook before.
Then he talked about iCloud and how Apple already has 100 million users of its cloud service, even though it was just launched this past fall. There was pride in his voice, a fierce pride that in this Apple service that was making such a mark on the world.
He proudly added that Apple doesn’t keep separate P&Ls (profit and loss statements) on products like Siri and iCloud. He said that Apple doesn’t hold products like that accountable for turning some kind of direct profit.
“You can’t make great products that way,” he explained. To me, those are the words of a product guy, not an operations guy.
Our own Dave Hamilton was the first to comment on it, saying, “Hearing Tim talk about Siri, it’s clear that he’s an excitable guy…passionate about products. I’ve never heard this before.”
We all quickly chimed in that we agreed.
The point got hammered home again when Bill Shope asked Mr. Cook about what kind of mark he would make on Apple as CEO. The emotions came pouring out as he described his take on piloting the U.S.S. Apple:
Apple is this unique company, this unique culture that you can’t replicate. And, I’m not going to witness or permit the slow undoing of it. Steve grilled in all of us that the company should revolve around great products and that we should stay extremely focused on just a few things rather than on so many that we can’t do any of them well.
These things, along with keeping excellence as an expectation of everything we do at Apple. These are the things that I focus on. Because I think those are the things that make Apple this magical place that makes smart people want to do not just their life’s work, but their life’s best work.
Dave Hamilton and Adam Christianson simultaneously noted in the Towers that Mr. Cook seemed like he was close to tears and was very choked up. I was frantically trying to transcribe it all, but that was went through my mind, too.
On the assumption that the emotions are genuine, what this interview showed us is that Tim Cook may be much more of a product guy than many of us gave him credit for, and it emphasized how much he cares about the company he helped Steve Jobs build as “the operations guy.”
The Wall Street guys might not get the importance of that, but those of us who love Apple products should very much appreciate the importance of having someone committed to its products at the helm of the company. Tim Cook showed us today that he has that commitment, that love of a great product, and the love of having a company focused on making them.