Three years ago, and just a few years after Apple founder and former CEO Steve Jobs died, Tim Cook unveiled what would be, to date, Apple’s only new product category under his watch: The Apple Watch.
That was supposed to be Cook’s moment and it hit all the right notes: Innovation in a faltering category, an iconic location (the same place Steve Jobs introduced the MacBook 30 years earlier), and a little showmanship with a specially-constructed giant white box to demonstrate the new wearable gear.
When Jobs first handed the reins to Cook in the summer of 2011, I wrote Apple would be “fine.” Actually, it’s better than fine.
Today, under Cook’s steady, process-influenced guidance, Apple is undoubtedly a larger and more successful company than ever before. It’s flirting with a trillion-dollar market cap, is listed among the top three companies in the Fortune 500 list (behind Walmart and Berkshire Hathaway), is making a ton of money and has an enviable cash stockpile, enough to buy Netflix or Disney.
Apple and Cook don’t really need this event to alter the course of Apple’s trajectory and I don’t think it will. Even so, it’s another epoch in Apple’s long history, rich with symbolism and one that presents a unique opportunity for its amiable CEO.
So, let’s set the stage.
On Sept. 12, Apple will certainly reveal its latest iPhone (or iPhones). Most experts anticipate a redesigned, $999 flagship device with an edge-to-edge OLED screen, leaving just a small cutout (or “notch”) for the camera and other sensors. There will be no home button or Touch ID, but it will have wireless charging. It may have a glass back and a reoriented dual-camera system. In short, it will be the most aggressive iPhone update since the iPhone 6 or iPhone 4. The iPhone 8 (or iPhone X, as it now looks to be called) will also mark the 10-year anniversary of the device that Jobs launched, arguably changing the world.
‘Apple is a victim of its own record of success and its mythology.’
It’s also the first event held on Apple Park Campus soil in Cupertino, California, a massive, 175-acre headquarters dreamed up by Steve Jobs shortly before his death. Few outside of Apple have been anywhere near the huge donut-shaped, “spaceship” that sits at its center.
Tuesday’s product unveiling will be held at Steve Jobs Theater, the 1,000-seat venue designed by and named for Jobs. It’ll be like Cook is launching the product inside the ghost of Steve Jobs (if you believe in that sort of thing).
It’s also the perfect place for Cook to finally excise his predecessor’s ever-present specter.
For everything that Cook has guided to market: Apple Watch, Apple Pay, the horizontal expansion of the iPhone line into multiple handsets, the iPad Pro and Pencil, AirPods, the upcoming HomePod, and an exploding services business, Apple, and especially Cook, is still viewed through the prism of its iconoclastic founder. The expectations are based on the bold, category-changing introductions. It’s one of the reasons why people claim Apple no longer innovates or that it’s “boring.”
Why can’t you be more like Steve?
Former Apple employee Bob Burrough, who straddled the Jobs and Cook eras by working at Apple from 2007-2014, made headlines earlier this year when he called Apple boring, tweeting, “The first thing Tim did as CEO was convert Apple from dynamic change-maker into a boring operations company.”
Not many agreed with Burrough, whose assessment of Apple focused primarily on Cook’s apparent desire to minimize internecine conflict.
When I spoke to him this week, he told me he still thinks Apple is a boring company, but agreed that the Sept. 12 event presents Cook with some tantalizing opportunities.
“No question. There is an opportunity. And it’s ultimately up to Tim to figure out how to use that opportunity for Apple to express itself to the world,” he wrote to me in a Twitter exchange.
Burrough, who told me he was in meetings with both Jobs and Cook over the years (though never directly presented his own work to them), cautioned that celebrating the past (“Happy 10th Birthday iPhone!”) or fixating on one big event is not going to make the difference.
“However, it is a constant that it’s Tim’s responsibility to figure out ways for Apple to express itself within the world. Every day that goes by is a new opportunity for Apple to bring truly great products to market,” wrote Burrough.
The past, however, is something that Cook cannot entirely escape.
The past, however, is something that Cook cannot entirely escape. This is due, in part, to the diametrically opposed personalities of Jobs and Cook. Where Jobs was a showman, Cook is someone who willingly cedes the stage to his lieutenants. In person, Cook is friendly, funny, warm and relatively open (though he can be practiced to a fault). Jobs was funny, too, but he had an ever-present edge. At product unveilings, Jobs owned the stage. He was the maestro and we were held mostly in his thrall for an hour or more.
Cook’s personality is not the kind that makes you forget the past, it’s one that reminds you of the differences and embraces your affection for the Apple of old, while still pointing you toward the future. If anything, it only serves to inflate the legend of Apple’s iconic past under Jobs.
“Apple is a victim of its own record of success and its mythology: from Big Brother to ‘think different,” said Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder in an email to Mashable. “Apple has always positioned itself as highly original, iconoclastic, and innovative,”
Gownder reminded me that all the major world-changing products like the Apple II, the Mac, the iPad and iPad and, of course, the iPhone, arrived on Jobs’ watch. Like others, he’s still waiting to see if Cook can do the same. “Can Apple still shake things up, creating entirely new industries and changing the way we work and live? It’s a tall task, but that’s the curse of following Steve Jobs.”
Most of the people I spoke with said Cook is aware of the importance of the event and they do expect him and Apple to mark the 10th anniversary of the company’s most important product in some significant way.
However, not all think this is the moment. Some insist the 2014 Apple Watch event is when Cook came into his own.
It certainly seemed that way at the time.
‘Can Apple still shake things up, creating entirely new industries and changing the way we work and live?’
Shortly after the Apple Watch and Apple Pay launch, Walt Mossberg, formerly of Recode and Wall Street Journal observed, “The Tim Cook era at Apple emerged onto the public stage today in full force, and it bears subtle differences from Steve Jobs’ Apple.” Mossberg noted the shift from the intersection of technology and liberal arts to what sounded more like a four-lane highway: technology and fashion and technology and banking.
I think he was partly right. It did mark the start of the Cook era at Apple. However, Cook is still being compared to Steve Jobs. He has not outrun that shadow and its hard to argue that the Apple Watch, which, even owning almost 50% of the smartwatch market, is in the same class as the iPhone, and no one would argue that the Apple Watch has had comparable societal impact.
So, while the Apple Watch is Cook’s baby, Job’s iPhone is still the Apple product with the longest tail and, regardless of how earth-shattering the iPhone 8 is or isn’t Cook can never entirely claim it as his own.
Others I spoke to believe Cook’s first time on stage after Jobs death in 2011, was his seminal moment.
“From Wall Street’s perspective, his first launch event after Steve’s death was the most important since it meant that from that time forward Apple’s success and failure was on his shoulders,” said Creative Strategies President and longtime Apple analyst Tim Bajarin. He agreed with me, though, that this event is special and symbolic.
“This event representing the tenth anniversary of the iPhone is equally important as it marks the success of the iPhone, Apple’s resurgence as an earnings power for investors and is held in the visionary theater that Steve Jobs designed,” said Bajarin.
iPhone anniversary aside, it’s the new products Cook unveils and how he unveils them that will set the tone and make the day memorable or not.
If you don’t think Apple and Cook have been pondering this, you’d be wrong. The stakes are high.
If the rumors are true, we’ll have multiple phones, a new Apple Watch and maybe a new Apple TV. We’ll also get ship dates for iOS 11, MacOS High Sierra, and, I assume, the HomePod smart assistant/speaker. I’m excited about all of them, but they’re not new categories and certainly not surprises.
Jobs had the benefit of much, much tighter secrecy than Cook enjoys (some of this is by design). So much of what Jobs unveiled on onstage over the course of 30 years was a surprise or, at least, we could count on on surprise when Jobs paused and said, “one more thing.”
Cook invoked the classic phrase in 2014 to reveal the Apple Watch. It was a big moment, but not all that surprising since rumors of the product’s existence (often called the iWatch) had been swirling for months.
I realize now that Cook should never use that phrase again. It only reminds us that Cook is not Jobs and this isn’t 1999.
Tuesday’s event is the perfect moment for Cook to surprise us in some new and unimaginable way (Apple Studios with a cavalcade of content and stars would be a good one). I don’t know what that is and, to be honest, I don’t want to know until the moment it happens.
If you don’t think Apple and Cook have been pondering this, you’d be wrong. The stakes are high.
“I think Tim Cook absolutely knows the significance of this. He has been at Apple long enough to know the significance and with his work, his position, and history and relationship with Steve Jobs I think he knows what’s on the line,” said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights.
And what’s on the line is Tim Cook’s chance to erase the founder’s long shadow and make a Jobs-level memory.
This is the moment where Apple finally becomes, in Steve Jobs theater of all places, Tim Cook’s Apple.
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