Tim Cook was a somewhat surprising and unnatural choice to succeed Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple is a fairly well-known fact. The move seemed all the more astonishing simply because Mr Jobs, in ill health and fighting cancer at the time, had handpicked Mr Cook for the role. The consternation was understandable: Mr Cook was clearly devoid of the trailblazing qualities that had made Mr Jobs a global tech phenomenon. He possessed none of Mr Jobs’ disruptive talents, nor was he blessed with the kind of maverick personality that had helped his predecessor garner the respect and adulation of zillions of Apple loyalists across the world.
In fact, when Mr Cook was appointed CEO in August 2011, industry insiders were so sceptical that some of them even predicted that without its iconic founder, Apple was doomed — it would soon go from a pioneer in innovation to just an average enterprise that would invariably suffer a downturn in growth and revenue. Some of the most fabulously successful companies of the 20th century — Sony, Disney, Ford, Polaroid — all stumbled after the departure of the leaders who built them, and critics feared that Apple was headed down the same road.
Leander Kahney’s Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level is essentially the story of how an unassuming man from a town of 5,000 people in Alabama crushed such doubts and defied all expectations, and succeeded in not only furthering Mr Jobs’ legacy, but also making Apple the first company to cross the trillion-dollar mark in market cap. Having covered the company for over two decades, Mr Kahney is the ultimate Apple insider. He previously authored a book on Mr Jobs, as well as one on Jony Ive, Apple’s long-running chief design officer, who was, incidentally, among the front-runners to replace Mr Jobs for the top post.
Mr Kahney’s work is an interesting read, partly because this is the first comprehensive account of Mr Cook’s life. The bulk of it is based on his time at Apple, but equally delightful is the lowdown on Mr Cook’s childhood — how a deeply private but well-liked boy won admirers at school and developed an early moral compass centred on teachings from two of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy. In fact, much of what Mr Cook has implemented at Apple — equal rights, greater focus on the environment, new charitable endeavours — had its roots in his childhood.
For instance, Mr Kahney mentions a shocking encounter Mr Cook had with the Ku Klux Klan while riding his bicycle as a young boy in the 1970s. “The Klansmen Cook witnessed had assembled their flaming cross on the property of a local black family,” he writes. The veracity of the incident has been questioned by some locals, but Mr Cook in years since has maintained that the experience had a lasting impact on him and the business practices he would later employ.
Taking over from Mr Jobs was never going to be easy, and Mr Cook got a taste of the challenge fairly quickly. Within months of taking charge, Apple shares plummeted on the back of missed iPhone sales forecasts. Worse, there was buzz that Samsung phones were overtaking Apple in some markets. Around the same time, Mr Cook had to get rid of Scott Forstall, the executive behind Apple Maps, a colossal failure for which the CEO had to eventually apologise.
Mr Jobs would have never made such an apology, notes Mr Kahney. Such comparisons are a recurring motif in the book. A lot of Mr Kahney’s premise is based on how Mr Cook’s more humane style of management is the antithesis of Mr Jobs’ tenacious nonconformist approach, and such a strategy is more suited to Apple’s culture in the long run. Mr Jobs, in fact, is likened to a “chief product officer”, whereas Mr Cook is portrayed as the real deal — a man who has his finger on the pulse of everything happening at his company, right from production to marketing.
Mr Kahney is an unapologetic Apple enthusiast and such glowing praise for Mr Cook lends itself to hagiographic tendencies. At times, Mr Cook comes across as a superhuman boss seemingly with no limitations. Which isn’t to say that Mr Cook hasn’t improved Apple. Under him, the company, with a special emphasis on user privacy, racial diversity and women empowerment, has set a sterling example for other corporations to follow. Even as the likes of Facebook and Twitter have been engulfed by privacy concerns in recent times, Apple has remained largely unscathed in that respect. The book, in fact, has a fascinating passage on how Mr Cook denied the Federal Bureau of Investigation access to an iPhone that belonged to Syed Farook, a suspect in the San Bernardino shooting of 2015.
Mr Kahney concludes with the tendentious argument that Mr Cook could be the best CEO Apple has ever had. That is a difficult comparison because Mr Jobs was the man who built the company and then rebuilt it when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s. Also, Mr Cook will still be judged by the innovations he makes. The Apple Watch and the Apple AirPods are breakthroughs that Mr Cook perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for, but he is yet to come up with something that can rival the astronomical success of the iPhone. Moreover, with the company launching a slew of new services to make up for sliding iPhone sales, Mr Cook’s legacy is far from certain. What is certain, though, as Mr Kahney so ably explains, is that Mr Cook has made Apple — and the world — a significantly better place.―Business Standard