Is Tim Cook a Product Visionary? Does He Need to Be?

4 minute read
| Particle Debris

A recent video of Steve Jobs talking about corporate leadership and product vision has reawakened a debate about Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Steve Jobs with Steepled Fingers

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Here’s the video.

A caption for the video at Digg has the title: “Steve Jobs Eerily Warned Against What Apple Seems To Be Doing Now.”

This one sentence is a perfect example of a defective thought process and click-bait journalism. Namely, take a preconceived notion, marry it with a video of a stellar personality, and draw a (false) conclusion, wrapped in the authority of the video’s personality.

That was enough to have several people, readers and friends, send it to me for analysis and discussion.

Innuendo Journalism

There are several facts that undermine the thesis presented..

  1. Tim Cook was hand picked by Steve Jobs to assume the leadership of Apple.
  2. Apple was a very different company under Steve Jobs. The company has transitioned from a one-trick-pony, “One more thing” product company to a vast corporation able to take on much grander challenges.
  3. Accordingly, Apple needs an experienced orchestra leader today. Not a lead vocalist. Plus, Mr. Cook has grown in maturity as a CEO in the last six years.

Another trick used to criticize Tim Cook is to say that because he came through the ranks as a leader of the sales teams and as COO that he fails as a singular product visionary—the apparent point of the Steve Jobs video linked above. Q.E.D.

I declare this to be all nonsense.

A company of Apple’s size needs an orchestra leader capable of properly managing the multitude of product visionaries within. Without that, Apple would degerate into a collection of fiefdoms run by lords of their own self-serving kingdoms. That’s the state Apple was in when Steve Jobs came back, and he fixed that problem immediately.

The suggestion is that because Tim Cook isn’t the sole originator of outrageously good tech products and rams them down the company’s throat he’s not suited to be the CEO. This kind of thinking is a fanciful, outdated, authoritatian notion for a much smaller company.

Orchestra Leader

Today, Tim Cook’s job is to be an orchestra conductor. He makes sure that everyone is on the same page and the instruments are superbly tuned. He’s not always succeeded perfectly, the 2014-2017 Mac lapse comes to mind, but he can hardly be compared, as Mr. Jobs suggested, to a corporate sales weenie to rises through the ranks only to guide his ship into a rudderless, maniacal obsession with money while great products languish. Or never get created.

The Tim Cook we know is passionate about quality, inspiring and secure products. He’s devoted to the vision of Steve Jobs but not so inwardly obsessed with his own agenda that he forgets how to lead a large, beloved, capable corporation.

Watch the Jobs video again. Great products sell themselves. Apple doesn’t fool itself into the idea that heavy handed sales techniques dupe the customer. Tim Cook’s heart-felt orchestration of the products brought to market is exactly what Mr. Jobs would demand of his successor years later.

Next Page: The News Debris For The Week Of September 25th. Hey, let’s sell a new camera always pointed at the customer’s bed.

11 Comments Add a comment

  1. geoduck

    Amazon Spot. I have a little rubberized magnet over the camera on my iMac. I ONLY remove it for Skype Calls. And my computer points at a wall, not my bedroom. Put a device in my bedroom with a camera on all the time? Does the term **** NO, ring a bell? Actually as you alluded, I can’t wait until these get hacked and the internet is flooded with stolen videos of people en flagrante. The lawsuits against Amazon will be massive and entertaining.

    TC: You make some good points, but you make a very good point. The musical comparison is spot on. Actually the description he makes fits Balmer more closely than TC.

    • Lee Dronick

      Put a device in my bedroom with a camera on all the time?

      I have a security camera in our bedroom. Most of the time it is blocked by a wooden screen. If we go out of town, or just out of the house for the day, then I unmask it.

  2. Ned

    Tim Cook seems to be a nice guy and that makes me think of Leo Durocher. He definitely can manage money. But he doesn’t strike me as a strong leader or a visionary.

    The Apple Watch wasn’t an Apple innovation, it was an Apple customer innovation when consumers took the 6th Gen iPod Nano and put it on a watchband. And it was quickly discontinued (to make way for the “Hey maybe they’re on to something?” watch). Outside of that, the iPhone is being milked for all it’s worth, along with the iMac and laptops. Nothing visionary seems to be coming out of Apple these days. The Apple underdog vs. Windows fanboys have given way to “Apple makes me a lot of money on stock” fanboys. But the products are becoming more “me too”.

    From a leadership perspective, I see Tim Cook as more of an amiable director, not a take charge person. Steve may have been a hard ass sometimes but that’s what you have to do to keep the momentum going. Tim seems to like to take credit and awards for things he never really did but acted as a front person for. He’s no Mother Teresa. The fact that he is good to his employees may say more about the rest of US business than about him – nice employers are hard to find anymore.

    I think Apple is in jeopardy of becoming another Panasonic if they’re not careful. Remember, “Just slightly ahead of our time.”? Panasonic created some innovative designs in the 70’s. But those designs and innovations can be quickly replaced. That was the point of the game, “King of the hill”. We don’t hear a lot about him anymore except for shows of some kind. Another thing that disappeared from the late 60’s and 70’s – Twiggy. Thin was in for a while but then it lost favor. How anorexic can one make equipment?

    Lastly, during the recent keynote, Craig demoed the animated emoji. He asked Tim, off stage if he could use the fox as his corporate emoji. Tim replied as an Alien, “Take me to your leader.” “Wait, I am your leader.” Interesting. Who was he reminding?

    • Jamie

      ‘I think Apple is in jeopardy of becoming another Panasonic if they’re not careful.’

      I do, too, or a Sony or a fill-in-the-blank. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, I suppose, they still make very nice products, but it’s a departure, nonetheless . It’s true that Tim doesn’t need to be a visionary, but it’d be nice if someone at Apple was. They have some very good, very talented people, but for me the days of jaw-hitting-floor are pretty much done, methinks. It isn’t necessarily their fault, either, as I suppose that it may have something to do with age as well, I don’t know if there’s much technology will be capable of within my lifetime that hasn’t already been explored to some extent within my lifetime, there just aren’t many surprises, certainly not of the variety a younger person might experience discovering some of these things for the first time. Modern tech is cool, to be sure, it falls short of being the stuff of amazement, for me at least.

      Bottom line, Apple is healthy, and that’s a good thing.

      • aardman

        “but for me the days of jaw-hitting-floor are pretty much done, methinks. . . . I don’t know if there’s much technology will be capable of within my lifetime that hasn’t already been explored to some extent within my lifetime”

        I feel fortunate that I was around to witness the incredible advances in computer technology. The last technological transition that was as vast and widespread was the introduction of the automobile in the early 20th century. But yes, the trend in personal computing has probably reached a plateau, at least in form factor. Devices cannot get any smaller, ergonomics constrains it, they can only get more powerful and the evolution of computing power just doesn’t lend itself to the Oh Wow effect that a totally new form factor delivers. That doesn’t mean technological advancement slows down, it just won’t be as sexy.

        So what could possibly be the next discontinuous change in personal computing? I can think of only one: Implants, which is one revolution I will choose to be left out of.

      • aardman

        Just to qualify. I think implanted devices is the most likely next revolution but ‘most likely’ is not the same as ‘likely’. Ironically, ‘most likely’ is a less confident assertion than ‘likely’.

    • Jamie

      I think he’s a nice guy, too, though I think he and Steve together had something they don’t separately. again, no faulting the man’s talent, but it just isn’t what it was. C’est la vie, I guess.

  3. Lee Dronick

    Slightly of Particle Debris comment, but it is in regards to John’s post about the red light mode in the Apple Watch:

    Unfortunately, the flashlight doesn’t remember the last setting. If you’ve been using the red light mode to stay dark adapted, leave the flashlight mode for other data, and then come back, you’ll start off with the white light again. It might ruin your dark adaption. Pilots and astronomers won’t like this, and I haven’t found a fix.

    A workaround for now could be to create a custom watch face that is just a red image.

  4. wab95


    Just a quick thought on TC and Vision.

    The three points you raise opposing the opinion proffered by Digg are well-reasoned and justified, as is the argument that what Apple need, a company different today than it was during SJ’s second tenure, is an orchestra conductor who, like today’s best conductors, have studied the maestro’s work, thoughts and ideas, and lend their best interpretation at delivering that vision. Some conductors are known as specialists in a given composer’s art, and as the go-to conductor for, example, Igor Stravinsky, or even a specific composition, like Handel’s Messiah. Without doubt, not only did SJ hand pick TC, as opposed to his selection being based on a head-hunter’s recommendation or committee consensus, TC had years of tutelage and apprenticeship at the hands of SJ, and is clearly committed to Apple’s culture. Finally, along this line, SJ specifically instructed TC not to second guess himself by asking what would SJ do. SJ clearly intended for the company to grow beyond him in directions that he, at that stage, could not guess or envision. His greatest product, as has been argued time and again, is Apple. SJ’s relation to it is not simply one of creator but parent. The best parents are those who provide their offspring with the requisite guidance and resources to discover themselves, and then permit them to grow in ways and in directions that the parent could never have foreseen or necessarily chosen. In isolation for a single individual we call this maturation; when aggregated to an entire population, we see it as social evolution. It’s what living thing do.

    Which leads to the larger picture. The negative depictions of TC were as inevitable as the sunrise, if for no other reason than SJ’s counsel just cited above, for TC not to ask himself what SJ would do, and thus free himself from the burden of trying to be and do what SJ would. The mere fact of his fidelity to that counsel condemned him, as SJ and TC both undoubtedly anticipated, to negative comparisons as the company evolved in new directions over which SJ never presided. What both also undoubtedly knew was that many of these same critics were the among those same individuals who criticised Apple for re-hiring SJ, and lampooned everything he did, whether successful, like the iMac, controversial, like discontinuing the Newton (remember that kerfuffle?) or the floppy drive, novel, like the iPod and music, or a market failure, like the Cube or even the hockey puck mouse. With his passing, revisionist history sets in and suddenly SJ’s status is elevated to a place with which no living mortal can possibly compete. Whenever I would point out blatant contradictions and hypocrisy in medical thought and practice to one of my most brilliant medical school mentors, who also happened to be the chair of paediatrics, he would respond with two words, ‘human perversity’. This is what necessitates the art of any science or craft or profession, namely how to deal with people and their perversity in a manner that still allows you to provide the best possible service and benefit, despite the noisome perversity of the milieu in which one has to deliver such service. Praise and gratitude are seldom the currency with which we reward the visionaries and providers who serve our best interests, even less so their hapless successors.

    Finally, but staying with the theme of contradiction and perversity, we accept, whether we like it or not, that our world; social, political and otherwise, is constantly changing. Indeed, change and transformation are the only constants in life. 2017 scarcely resembles 1997 in most ways that matter sociopolitically and culturally (women will now be driving in Saudi Arabia. No, seriously). Yet, we grouse when a beloved icon and company like Apple changes. If we understood and appreciated the co-evolution and adaptation of living things in real time, and how this essentially defines fitness, we should grouse, complain and worry if that thing did not change, because change is the surest sign of life and an antidote to obsolesce, irrelevance and eventual extinction. Just ask MS’s Satya Nadella.

    As for the Echo Spot, this should reassure one and all that stupidity is alive and well.

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