Apple Inc., ‘After Steve’

A new history of the trillion-dollar company in the wake of Steve Jobs.

Between 2001 and 2010, Apple released the iPod, iPhone, MacBook Air, and iPad, all of which revolutionized their respective product categories. The iPhone was the most important of these. Apple’s clear dominance drove every other firm selling high-end phones to either replicate or die. (Within a few years, Nokia, BlackBerry, and Palm were all gone.) Apple in 2010, near the end of its decennium mirabilis, had a hardware innovation record that no other electronics company could match. This includes the 2020 Apple.

Apple’s co-founder and animating soul, Steve Jobs, died in 2011, leaving the company in the hands of Jony Ive, a British-born designer-savant, and Tim Cook, an Alabama native who’d mastered supply chains and production costs. Tripp Mickle of the New York Times analyzes Ive’s and Cook’s careers and how they and the company evolved after they took over in “After Steve.”

The book follows the rise and fall of Ive and Cook’s cooperation, based on a thorough analysis of public sources and over 200 interviews with current and former Apple employees and advisers; the cast of characters alone is four pages long. Mickle employs comparative descriptions to sketch out their differences, such as how Ive drives to work in a bright yellow Saab and Cook in a drab Honda Accord, in response to Apple’s “culture of omertà.”

Both men helped save a sinking Apple in the 1990s — Ive first, overseeing the design of a new line of computers with candy-colored transparent cases. When the iMac launched in 1998, Jobs unveiled Ive’s creation by pulling a sheet off it, as if it were a sculpture, saying, “It looks like it’s from another planet, a good planet with better designers.” Those eye-catching iMacs improved the company’s public perception, staff morale and bottom line all at once. Apple was saved. Now it just had to grow.

Jobs hired Cook to overhaul Apple’s inefficient production line the same year. Cook, who had previously led Compaq’s supply chain, was known for being tough and meticulous. Cook calmly inquired, “How would you get to a thousand?” after his team presented a plan to boost inventory turnover from 25 to 100 times a year to save money on “spoiling parts.” “I watched grown men cry,” claimed Joe O’Sullivan, who was in charge of operations when Cook arrived. … He went into an incredible amount of depth.”

Ive was also demanding of his coworkers and outside vendors. When I was shown a piece of polished aluminum for a laptop cover at one meeting, I became noticeably upset about flaws that were hardly evident to the others. One of his coworkers handed him a red Sharpie and told him to circle what was incorrect in an attempt to calm him down. Ive said, “I’ve got a different notion.” “Go get a bucket of red paint for me.” I’ll dip this in it and wipe away the good stuff.” Ive was not only a perfectionist, but also a corporate infighter. If engineers talked too loudly or emphasized prices, he would deny them access to the design wing. Because this type of conduct was well-known, a source in H.R. told Mickle that they’d hidden employees from Ive on occasion to avoid firing them.

However, perfectionism isn’t enough to make a fantastic result. Following Jobs’ death, it was unclear what the Next Big Thing would be. Home automation, health-care gadgets, self-driving cars, televisions, and a variety of headphones were all investigated, with some of them being released. The Apple Watch, however, would be the highlight of Apple’s device efforts — and hence of Mickle’s book — for the majority of Ive’s tenure.

“Designers defined how a thing would look and had an outsize voice in its functionality,” Mickle writes of Ive, who has been a significant player in product design for years. Apple’s affluence fueled Ive’s tendencies. The wristband was made from leather procured from tanneries all around Europe, and the bespoke winding crown took many hours to design and build. I demanded — and received — a new 18-karat alloy that was twice as durable as conventional gold because I was determined from the start to manufacture ultra-expensive versions.

However, as the plot progresses, it becomes evident that the watch will not be the Next Big Thing. As Ive has more influence over the watch than he did over the iPhone, it transforms from a practical screen on your wrist to a fashion accessory. Meetings with Anna Wintour, a product event in Paris, and the introduction of a $17,000 model have all been accompanied by a progressive reduction in expectations for its health tracking and battery life. The reader has seen it coming, one decision at a time, by the time it eventually appears and sales fall short of expectations.

Cook, in contrast to Ive’s project, had a lot on his plate. He was summoned to testify before Congress about taxes. He had to apologize for Apple Maps’ first iteration’s poor performance. The Samsung Galaxy, an iPhone competitor, was prone to spontaneous combustion. China Mobile, the country’s major telecom, has expressed interest in selling iPhones. “While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly accepted it either, until now,” Cook wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay to be one of God’s greatest gifts to me.” He was the first Fortune 500 CEO to come out. He also became the first CEO of a public firm worth a trillion dollars in 2018. Then there’s two trillion. Then there’s three.

Mickle creates a deep, granular mosaic of Apple’s ups and downs, demonstrating how the company grew from Ive’s in the 2000s to become Cook’s corporation in the 2010s. Ive, who has been knighted for many years, is increasingly enthralled by prospects outside of Apple — a museum show, a charity auction, and an immersive Christmas tree project — and decides to work part-time in 2015. Cook persuades Ive to return, seeing that this is worse than having him completely there or absent, but his heart is plainly not in it. Finally, Ive departs for good in 2019.

Mickle abandons his reporter’s detached attitude in the epilogue to assign blame for the company’s failure to launch another transformational product. Cook is chastised for being aloof and mysterious, a poor match for Ive, “an artist who wanted to bring empathy to every product.” Ive is also chastised for taking on “responsibility for software design and the management obligations that he rapidly grew to hate.”

It’s also complete nonsense, as seen by the prior 400 pages. Apple didn’t make another gadget as vital as the iPhone after Jobs died, but they didn’t produce another device as important before he died either. Cook did not perform the role of CEO like Jobs did, but no one expected him to, even Jobs, who told Cook on his deathbed not to ask what Steve would do: “Just do what’s right.”

Ive and Cook wanted another iPhone, but as Mickle’s detailed investigation demonstrates, there was no way to produce one. Self-driving cars were too difficult, health gadgets were too restricted, television was protected in ways that music had not been, and even the earphones and watch, which they did ship, were secondary to Apple’s greatest product, both technically and philosophically.

Aside from the epilogue, the book offers an incredibly comprehensive portrayal of the constant tension between plan and luck: companies write their own history, but not at their leisure. After Steve, Cook’s biggest opportunities were in Apple’s future, while Ive’s in its past. Cook reacted wonderfully when the Next Big Thing turned out to be services built on top of the Last Big Thing — iCloud, Apple Music, and the App Store. He followed Jobs’ guidance and did the right thing, but in ways that put less emphasis on the type of work Ive excelled at. That story’s moral is that there is none.



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