Tim Cook, Like Apple, Is Figuring Out a Transition

NEWS ANALYSIS: In a bit of tricky timing, Tim Cook is making Apple his own as the business itself reaches a natural moment of transition.

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Tim Cook, Apple's reserved and fiercely private CEO, continues to work to put his stamp on a company that has another man's fingerprints all over it. Part of how he's doing this is by opening up a bit about himself, The New York Times said in a June 15 article, timed during the quiet between Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) and the so-called year of innovation it's expected to kick off in September.

The article quoted a speech Cook gave in December, during which he shared details of a life-changing childhood moment: As a young boy in Alabama, he was riding his bicycle when he heard the sound of breaking glass and abruptly came across Klansman burning a cross on the lawn of a black family. His horror was heightened when he recognized a local church deacon under one of the hoods.

"This image was permanently imprinted in my brain, and it would change my life forever," Cook said, according to The Times, which used the story to highlight changes in Cook, who had shared the story with friends but never before told it publicly.

Cook's challenge to make the company his own comes as Apple's growth has begun to slow.

At least one analyst, frustrated by a lack of new product categories during Cook's tenure, has called for his ouster.

But it's possible that Apple's slowed sales pace, and the rumored devices that never emerged, are due partly to a changing of gears, and to the fact that the type of growth Apple enjoyed over the last decade isn't maintainable over the long term.

"Businesses that experience fast growth eventually slow as they conquer markets and shift from disruptive force to entrenched power," Ken Hyers, director of Wireless Device Strategies at Strategy Analytics, told eWEEK.

"I find it strange," Hyers added, "that the same people who reflect on how Steve Jobs was a once-in-a-lifetime genius persist in complaining that Tim Cook is not more like Jobs. … Cook's style was well-known long before Jobs anointed his successor."

Jack Narcotta, an analyst with Technology Business Research, agrees. "When a company is successful and gains scale as Apple has, there needs to be a shift in how the company is run," Narcotta told eWEEK. That shift, he added, "is the industry, media and Apple's customers realizing that Tim Cook's job is running Apple's business, not being the product release event showman or a polarizing figure in the 'thermonuclear war' against Google."

Regarding that war, the lead image for The Times piece put Cook's face against a kaleidoscope of colors that any Android user would recognize as a popular Google wallpaper.

While Apple once seemed to be without a true peer or competition (between 2003 and 2014 it enjoyed annual growth of nearly 40 percent), Samsung, with its Android-running smartphones, now vastly outsells it.

How to compete? Cook is making Apple about more than "the next big iThing," said The Times.

TBR's Narcotta, in April, called Apple's Earth Day initiatives a sign of Tim Cook putting his own (green) mark on Apple. Cook seemed to be doing the same thing in a November opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which he advocated for equality in the workplace and backed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

"As we see it, embracing people's individuality is a matter of basic human dignity and civil rights," Cook wrote.

Cook's segue from the burning-cross story, The Times pointed out, was to say that Apple is a company that believes deeply in "advancing humanity."

Cook perhaps best summed up his position during Apple's March shareholder meeting, in his response to a shareholder representative who suggested Apple only back environmental initiatives that are lucrative, "We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive," Cook snapped. "We want to leave the world better than we found it."

To take Apple to the next level, Cook has built a spectacular team of experts around him.

"He knows that his qualities and strengths are not the same as Jobs' and he is turning to the best he can find [Jony Ive, Jimmy Iovine, Angela Ahrendts, etc.] to ensure that future products are special," said Hyers, adding that this team approach is a smart one.

The old Apple isn't the Apple of today, Tim Cook isn't Steve Jobs, and it's a strange industry, or a strange time, when either of those things are viewed as a weakness.

"Tim Cook has proven he's a great CEO. The company remains phenomenally—if not a little ridiculously—profitable and its vision has not really changed all that much from when [Jobs] was at the helm," said Narcotta.

Cooks' job, which he's doing well, Narcotta added, is to run a successful business and ensure that when Apple rolls out the next big thing, "the strength of Apple, the business, is just as strong as Apple, the icon."

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