Today marks 10 years since the death of Steve Jobs, visionary co-founder of Apple and its CEO from 1997 to 2011. The occasion is being marked by a flurry of online tributes and retrospectives, not least on Apple's own website, which carries a video called Celebrating Steve and a moving statement from his family.
We all miss Jobs - his creative spark, his zeal, his erratic temper, the way he could hold a room of journalists in the palm of his hand. Covering Apple is a lot less fun than it used to be, and it would be fascinating to see what he would have made of the tech landscape of 2021. The political landscape, too.
In this article, though, I'd like to offer a counterpoint to the (fully deserved) tributes. Not a hatchet job: he had plenty of negative attributes, as do we all, but I won't dwell on them here, nor will I deny that Jobs was an inspiring leader, a prophetic futurist and a gifted communicator.
What I will argue is that his impact on Apple (and on the industry at large) was so cartoonishly vast that it makes us lose sight of the contributions of his successor as CEO, Tim Cook. And that Cook is just as important to the company's present success, and perhaps even more so.
Real artists ship
Jobs had a lot of aphorisms - he remains one of the most quoted figures in the tech industry - but one that I feel deserves more attention is "Real artists ship", a phrase he drilled into the stressed-out Macintosh team in 1983. It's a statement of intent that says creativity is worthless if you don't complete the assignment. And a concession to the grown-ups in the room who thought that waving pirate flags and obsessing over tiny details (remember that his slogan at the previous gathering had been "Don't compromise", which is almost literally the opposite message) was getting in the way of actually making money.
Cook is now the grown-up in the room. (One senses that, although he was five years younger, he felt like the grown-up even when Jobs brought him into the company.) And under his stewardship, Apple ships. He is a pragmatist; he fits into the long tradition of the safe pair of hands who takes over from an inspirational founder and makes the company profitable. Or in Apple's case, even more profitable.
The company still makes interesting and beloved products. Maybe not to the degree it once achieved: there has been nothing, so far, to rival the sheer cultural weight of the first iPhone. But the Apple Watch is significant. The AirPods are significant - and a commercial blockbuster. The HomePod was a failure, but a glorious and interesting one. And one that Apple learned from, and iterated on smartly.
What Cook really brings to the table, though, is a mastery of the boring bits. He is a logistics expert: as soon as he joined the company he focused on honing Apple's supply chain, reducing its inventory, lowering its costs. By all the evidence we have, Cook is much better at this stuff than Jobs ever was, or ever had any interest in being. And that means Apple is a lot more profitable.
From prophet to profit
Just look at the company's yearly profits over the past 16 years. They have ballooned since Cook took over. (These figures, which represent billions of dollars, come from Statista. )
- Fiscal year 2005: 1.33
- 2006: 1.99
- 2007: 3.5
- 2008: 6.12
- 2009: 8.24
- 2010: 14.01
- 2011: 25.92
- 2012: 41.73
- 2013: 37.04
- 2014: 39.51
- 2015: 53.39
- 2016: 45.69
- 2017: 48.35
- 2018: 59.53
- 2019: 55.26
- 2020: 57.41
You can argue that Cook inherited a company that was already on the rise, and rode the wave. But I would argue that he inherited a company that was unhealthily reliant on the iPhone, and has overseen a future-proofing strategic pivot.
Instead of just selling phones, Cook wants Apple to focus on selling software and services to people that already own the phones. TV+ hasn't done well, and Arcade may yet fail, but with Music, and News+, and Fitness+, and Apple One, not to mention the ongoing success of the App Store, he has established projects that give the company a fighting chance of keeping this astonishing sequence going without compromising profits in the short term.
This is, in my view, an incredibly underrated piece of corporate management.
The appeal of genius
In the end, you could quite reasonably argue that none of this matters. Why do we care if a corporation reports a merely huge or an indescribably vast number to its shareholders at the end of each quarter? It's not like we get any of that money. (We really don't. A surprising number of people still seem to think that Macworld is owned by Apple, but it is not.)
For that matter, I get why people loved Steve Jobs, and continue to love him. He had the appeal of the flawed genius: he said quotable things, and acted erratically in job interviews, and had incredible ideas, and drove his teams so hard that they either quit in disgust or created the greatest tech products the world has ever seen. I don't entirely subscribe to the myth of the tortured genius - I think Tim Cook is evidence that you can treat people decently and still get results - but I totally understand the appeal.
But that's a question of charisma, not corporate responsibility. And if the question is which of the two great Apple CEOs actually achieved more for the company, I submit that there is only one answer.
Different Think is a weekly column, published every Tuesday, in which Macworld writers expose their less mainstream opinions to public scrutiny. We've defended the notch, told Apple to stop being so successful and argued that nobody needs a foldable iPhone. See you next week!