Tim Cook Is No Steve Ballmer

2 minute read
| News

A piece at Seeking Alpha attributed to Standard Investment Company Inc. makes the argument that Tim Cook needs to be replaced as CEO of Apple. The argument is fairly simple: Tim Cook is “identical to Steve Ballmer” and should be replaced.

The piece is making the rounds in the blogosphere, and I was specifically asked what I thought about it. So here’s the short version: it’s balderdash—Tim Cook is no Steve Ballmer.

Tim Cook, from Charitybuzz Auction

Tim Cook, from Charitybuzz Auction

Here are the bullet points offered in the piece:

  • Under Tim Cook, Apple became the most valuable, most profitable, and most well-known company in the world.
  • But Tim Cook simply inherited the success created by Steve Jobs, who left him with the iPhone, iPad, iMac, and the whole Apple ecosystem.
  • Assessment of the new products and projects unveiled under Tim Cook reflects a lack of vision and innovation required by a successful tech company CEO.
  • Tim Cook in many ways is identical to Steve Ballmer, and for the same reasons should be replaced.

Tim Cook is No Steve Ballmer

My point here is not to say that Mr. Cook is perfect. For instance, I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs that Apple no longer ships new products and that it’s ridiculous. There were 14 products that shipped in all of 2016. It’s only gotten worse since then. In the last 8 months, Apple has shipped 3 new products: AirPods, a (RED) iPhone, and the inexpensive iPad.

It’s absurd.

The fact is there is a huge difference between Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer. Mr. Ballmer was obsessed with protecting the Windows/Office hegemony and sacrificed everything remotely new and interesting to protect those two cash cows. It’s classic marketing/bean counter management, something that Steve Jobs railed against more than once.

Tim Cook isn’t sacrificing the new and interesting. His shortcoming as a CEO is in losing focus on legacy products, not propping them up. He has huge teams working on augmented reality, a car, and potentially life-changing health initiatives. Under his tenure, Apple is reshaping one of its most successful products ever, its fleet of Apple Stores. The company is also doing incredible things with energy, robotics, and manufacturing. And these are just the things we know about.

Tim Cook is the anti-Steve Ballmer.

Tim Cook Has Vision

Now, you might not like Mr. Cook’s focus on these future-generation products and technologies. You might hate Apple’s efforts in green energy. Maybe you’re cranky (like me) that Apple can’t iterate Macs, iPads, AirPort, or displays. You might be angry that Apple hasn’t shown iWork and iLife much love, or that the Final Cut Pro X transition was a mess.

But even if you are, you can’t blame it on Mr. Cook being “identical” to Mr. Ballmer. Steve Ballmer is a marketer with no product vision. He’s a sales guy, and the living embodiment of Steve Jobs’s warning about putting sales guys in charge of product companies.

The video below is just one of the instances when Mr. Jobs spoke about this.

Tim Cook is an operations guy, not a sales guy. He has a vision of Apple being much, much more than it is today. If you want to fire him for that, make your case, but don’t besmirch his name by comparing him to Steve Ballmer.

6 Comments Add a comment

  1. mjtomlin

    It’s funny that people who agree with that narrative ONLY look at the Mac as an excuse why Tim is failing. The truth is, Apple has never sold more Macs. Apple is in a much stronger position financially, technologically, competitively and commercially than they’ve EVER been.

    It’s funny that the iPod, arguably, Apple’s savior, is never brought up as being “left” behind after being crammed into the “other” category. And we have the Apple Watch, which is deemed as a failure, that is actually doing better than the iPod did this far into its lifetime.

    People miss the “glitz” of Steve Jobs, and at the same time fail to understand why he did what he did. It was during a time when Apple NEEDED the attention and Steve masterfully brought Apple to the masses by “putting on a show”.

    Apple is in a much different place and Tim has directed it towards making sure they gain control of their own destiny by bringing most of the technology they rely on in house. He understands that it is now more important to be able to own all of it and not just the looks of it. We will have that “old Apple” again once Tim has made sure everything is in place to go back to it.

  2. cubefan

    Genius, that clip should be compulsory viewing for anybody wanting to understand how companies in monopoly positions behave, regardless of type of business.

    It is a timely reminder that Apple’s laser-like focus on mature product categories has been partly diluted by the success of iDevices, because there’s only so many executive clock cycles available to.

    Also that the pace of technology advancement in x86 architecture CPU’s has slowed dramatically – so there’s not much scope to churn out new products based entirely on chipset upgrades, nobody gets excited about a 200MHz increase in clock speed.

    The key to innovation and product development is differentiation and exploitation of technologies Apple already owns – touchbar for example is in its infancy – could you conceive of a backlit haptic keyboard on a Mac laptop – you can be sure Apple are trying it out but it could be like a million other blind alleys you never get to hear about because it doesn’t work well enough or it breaks the user experience – one keyboard for all regions, controlled by software alone – remember you read it here first. :-). This stuff takes time…

  3. JonGl

    Here’s my take on what has happened at Apple, and where they made their “mistakes”.

    1. First of all, I think that Steve Jobs was too convinced that iPads/mobile would overtake the desktop in importance and overall usage. That hasn’t happened, but I think that Apple was so convinced of this one aspect, that they didn’t really plan for any other contingency.
    2. Directly connected to this is the fact that technology hasn’t advanced as fast as they would like. They seem to be investing their attention in far-out things that won’t have a return for quite a while. Also, I think they are probably also
    3. Spread too thin. Jobs had this ability to focus laser-like on the one big thing that mattered. Apple doesn’t have someone who has the ability to focus attention. It’s not like he had only one thing, but each one thing had a laser focus, so the result was that it seemed like there was only one thing. I think that Apple is diluting themselves too broadly into too many areas that won’t have a solid return on investment, because they are so convinced of them, and invested emotionally in them, while they are leaving those current items, in particular, the Mac, to pick up whatever left-over resources they can.

    You take all these together, and you get a Mac Pro that languishes four years without an update, and incremental and seemingly useless updates to the MacBook Pro line.

    Personally, I’m quite sure that Apple is working behind the scenes on solid improvements to the iPad line, and the Mac line, but they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, because any improvements can only be incremental, due to a seeming pause in the technological drive. Intel hasn’t done anything real for ages, Ryzen is the first real jump in years, and all of this is still rather basic. We are at an impasse and nobody is really breaking out of the mold… And at this point, I don’t see Cook as the man for the job to do that. I’m not saying that Apple can’t do it, and certainly not under Cook, but he can’t do it himself…

    And them’s my silly thoughts and comments…

  4. aardman

    This is what most pundits don’t get. The smartphone is the endpoint in the series of innovations under the category “personal mobile computing hardware”. It will keep getting more powerful, the graphics will keep getting nicer, battery life (hopefully) will keep improving, but that’s it.

    The smartphone has bumped up against the human physical and cognitive limits. It won’t get any smaller (in fact it started out a little too small at first) and it won’t undergo a massive change in its data interface (it will always have a screen, it will always have touch, voice will improve but it will not take over). The smartphone’s basic configuration has reached equilibrium and it will remain for the foreseeable future the single, most ubiquitous, most indispensable manufactured product ever. For those seeking equivalent historical phenomena of a product reaching a stable configuration, the smartphone now is where books were when the codex obsoleted the scroll. Nothing followed that for a long, long time until ebooks were invented, and the jury is still out on whether ebooks will triumph over the dependable old codex.

    What I’m saying then is that to declare that Apple and Tim Cook is successful if and only if they follow up the iPhone with a product of equal earth-shaking impact reveals an embarrassing level of ignorance about and appreciation of the history of technology.

  5. NEALC5

    The codex analogy is perfect. It becomes harder to “innovate” when the “perfect” form has been reached. For how many years have people tried to change the human machine interface for driving, which for years now is a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal on the right, a brake pedal in the center, and a clutch pedal (if it exists) to the left of the brake pedal. Even when the driver sits on the right side of the car, the organization of the pedals and steering wheel is the same. Only when autonomous driving becomes fully competent and safe will the driving interface be different.

    The same will occur with displays. Once the resolution of displays exceeds visual acuity of humans, innovation in this particular area will stop.

    Apple is innovating, but it is just not in the same way as before.

  6. aardman

    Oh and by the way, Apple’s health initiatives are going to be big. Big and indispensable and only Apple can do this because nobody in his right mind would trust Google, Facebook or Amazon with their private health information.

    This is a long term play, though, with key pieces and technologies that have to be developed and put in place one brick at a time. But once it’s up and running, those people who have been complaining that Tim Cook has no vision will realize that he was seeing things that were far beyond what most people were looking at.

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