2014 Will Be the Year That Defines Apple CEO Tim Cook

Time can be a funny thing, and not just in a Stephen Hawking yuk-yuk kind of way. For we intellectual mortals, time has a magical ability to change our perspective on things, making small things become important, and allowing us to all but forget what used to feel like was of end-of-the-world, apocalyptic magnitude.

That's what is going to happen in 2014, a year I believe will come to define the Tim Cook era of Apple. 2014 is the year when analysts and armchair numbnuts will go from erroneously worrying about Apple's ability to innovate without Steve Jobs to judging Apple's execution in bringing innovation to market.

Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook

It's funny—and this time I'm talking yuk-yuks—but the two and a half years since Steve Jobs died have been awash in criticism aimed at Tim Cook for not having introduced something life changing and market disrupting. This criticism has always been couched as if Apple disrupted markets every year when Mr. Jobs was in charge, despite the nit-picky fact that this isn't true.

It also ignores the pesky reality that anything Apple might have released up until now would have had some involvement from Mr. Jobs. Any such product would have said about as much about Tim Cook's ability to deliver innovation as its absence says about his inability to do so. In other words, little or nothing.

What's extra fascinating is that such criticism continues to get pronounced with utter confidence by ill-informed, un-critical thinkers like Trip Chowdry, who recently called for Tim Cook's ouster as Apple CEO. His reason? Mr. Cook hasn't been aggressive enough in releasing disruptive products just as rumors of Apple releasing a wearables product are gaining enough strength to get up and walk their own way to an Apple Store.

It's face-palmingly stupefying.

Instead of pretending that Apple disrupts markets every season, people should instead have been focused on the incredible job that Tim Cook has really been doing. Jeff Gamet and I discussed this on Wednesday's Apple Context Machine, but here's what Tim Cook has been working on since Steve Jobs passed away.

Next: What Tim Cook's Been Up To

What Tim Cook's Been Up To


Here are some of the things that Tim Cook has been working on in the last couple of years.

  1. Maintaining remarkable continuity in the ranks of Apple executives. Jonny Ive, Peter Oppenheimer, Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, and Bruce Sewell have all remained in their jobs (Mr. Oppenheimer will retire at the end of fiscal 2014). The three new additions to Apple's leadership—Craig Federighi, Dan Riccio, and Jeff Williams—are all Apple veterans.

    Tim Cook's ability to keep all of these talented people who came to Apple in part to work with Steve Jobs says something remarkable about Tim Cook. That consistent leadership has allowed Apple's less bright critics to ignore this accomplishment.
  2. Running Apple and Apple Retail. For the last year and a half, Apple hasn't had a senior vice president or C-Suite executive in charge of retail. That means that Mr. Cook has ultimately been running retail in addition to all of the other responsibilities that go along with running the world's most profitable company.

    Some might point Mr. Cook hiring John Browett in the first place as a big mistake. It was, but to me, swiftly terminating Mr. Browett and waiting until he found what I think and hope will be the right person—Angela Ahrendts—to replace him more than outweighs that initial mistake. More importantly, though, Mr. Cook's ability to handle retail in the interim says yet another remarkable thing about him.
  3. Ensuring that Steve Jobs's business values are instilled in Apple's culture. Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson that he worked hard in the last few years of his life to make sure that it continued and thrived without him. The man he chose to carry that banner after his death was Tim Cook.

    That goes a long way with me, but it seems clear that Tim Cook has made this a priority, and I have argued in the past that he's the only person who could have done this most-critical piece of leading Apple in the post-Jobs era.
  4. Overseeing massive expansion of Apple's manufacturing capability and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. Apple is making the Mac Pro in Austin, Texas, and the company has invested in an enormous manufacturing facility in Arizona that will make a new product that will in turn spawn a new ecosystem.

    This is huge. HUGE. But Apple has been doing even more, investing in new oversight and management of its Asian supply chain, creating and managing new environmental programs in that supply chain, and increasing its monitoring and compliance for its Supplier Code of Conduct.

    Apple as a whole and Tim Cook in particular gets no credit for these things.
  5. Shepherding new product development and refusing to release a new product before it was ready. We all know Apple is working on new products, particularly something in wearables (the so-called iWatch), and some kind of expanded TV-related product.

    I think that many lesser people would have rushed out one of these new products just to prove to the world that they didn't need Steve Jobs. Many executives would have crumbled in the face of all of the absurd criticism hurled Mr. Cook's way.

    Instead, Tim Cook has done the harder thing. He has clearly said "No" to a lot of things, something Steve Jobs lectured about repeatedly, and he has waited to release these new products until they are ready. Just like Steve Jobs would have done. Does he get credit? No, he gets criticized by people who have done little or nothing themselves.

These are significant and amazing achievements, and Tim Cook gets credit for none of it, especially from mainstream pundits.

Next: 2014 Will Be The Year of Tim Cook

2014 Will Be The Year of Tim Cook


But this is the year that all that is going to change. 2014 will be the year that people go from questioning Apple's ability to innovate to judging Apple's execution of delivering innovation. This will be a significant shift in the tone of Apple punditry.

I am certain that we are nearing the time when one or two new products are ready. I suspect that the iWatch—whatever Apple calls it—will be first, and that it will sooner, rather than later in the year. When that happens, Apple's critics will magically turn on a philosophical dime and go from proclaiming that Apple can't innovate to judging Apple's innovation.

The irony will be that most of them won't acknowledge how wrong, ill-informed, and in some cases how stupid their previous pronouncements were, but that's a subject for another column.

Once Apple launches a new product category, the years since Steve Jobs's death will quickly diminish in importance, and it will set the new bar by which Tim Cook is judged. Future products will be compared to what is released this year—Are they as important as the iWatch? Will they have have as much of an impact as the iWatch? Will they sell as well as the iWatch?—and all of the angst from Apple haters and Tim Cook doubters that have characterized the last two and a half years will vanish.

I can't wait.