Silicon Valley is filled with plenty of characters and superstar CEOs. But Apple CEO Tim Cook is easily one of the steadiest performers and likely the most under-the-radar of the bunch, as he leads one of the most powerful, profitable companies on earth.
In 2011, Cook inherited one of the toughest jobs ever: taking on the impossible task of following Steve Jobs. Cook has not only made the impossible possible, but has led Apple into one of its most successful eras ever, becoming the first American company to hit a trillion-dollar valuation. Under his tenure, Apple has continued to release successful products, from new iPhones to the AirPods.
In his new biography, Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level, author Leander Kahney makes the case that Cook deserves more credit for Apple’s success, as he’s expertly and consistently guided it to new heights.
While Jobs was a celebrity, Cook shuns the spotlight — but still gets it done. Cook has also taken on several new agendas at Apple when it comes to social causes such as the environment and diversity, something Jobs didn’t show much of an interest for.
GeekWire interviewed Kahney about his latest Apple book. He’s already the author of Inside Steve’s Brain and Jony Ive, and is the editor at Cult of Mac. As someone who’s covered Apple for more than a dozen years, he’s carefully dissected the Cook era to present a case that the company’s strongest years are post-Jobs — and the best years may still be to come.
GeekWire: You’ve covered Apple for a long time. What did you think would happen when Tim Cook took over?
Leander Kahney: I actually had a lot of confidence in him. I knew that he was one of the big architects of Apple’s comeback. I was one of the lone voices, I think. Most pundits thought that that was the beginning of the end for Apple for many reasons: Where are they gonna be without Steve Jobs? Where are the new products going to come from? They thought the company would survive at best, but most likely decline.
Cook didn’t get any credit for saving Apple. He was recruited by Jobs in 1998, and what he did had a massive effect on a very important part of Apple: How it operated and how it made its products, which are so essential to how efficient the company is. Before, it had its own factories, which was just a disaster. They couldn’t meet demand or made too many products that they couldn’t move. He really fixed that up and made Apple into the gold standard.
GeekWire: He is very much seen as ‘Operations Guy.’
Kahney: That’s what people say. This is why I think Cook hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. Everyone says, “he’s just an operations guy,” like he’s just a bureaucrat who makes the trains run on time. When I looked back, Jobs made him head of sales in 2001, then Cook took over the Macintosh division, and then he was in charge of services, then COO. It seems like Jobs made him jump around a little bit and take on these different areas, and it looks like there’s a CEO-in-training going on.
GeekWire: Do you think Cook is a better CEO than Jobs?
Kahney: Yes, he’s a better CEO than Jobs. Jobs was a terrible CEO. He succeeded in spite of himself. He succeeded because he hired people like Cook to help run the company. That was definitely true at Pixar. At NeXT, he was all over the place. Apple’s first round, he was never put in charge as CEO, then he took over the Macintosh project, and he quit before he got fired a year after that.
Of course, Jobs did an amazing job when he came back to Apple. It’s one of the biggest turnarounds in corporate history. The company was on the ropes, and he fixed it up into the world’s biggest company.
Early on, Jobs was more mature and wise enough to hire someone like Cook to help build the business. Jobs got all the credit for that era, but Cook had a lot to do with it, building it up as a business. Jony Ive had everything to do with the products. Like Camelot, it was the Knights of the Round Table. Jobs as King Arthur, but he was mature enough to hire a great team.
GeekWire: Last August, Apple became the first company to pass a trillion-dollar valuation. Let’s talk about some advantages it has over competitors with its newer ventures, like Apple TV+ and AppleNews+, especially when comes to issues of privacy and data.
Kahney: The Apple brand is about ease of use. It just works. And I think with Tim Cook, the Apple brand is one you can trust. We’re not going to spy on you. We’re not going to sell your data. There’s no back doors for the FBI or anybody else in an era when we’re all being spied on. And a cell phone is a mobile spying device, but you can trust your iPhone. It’s not going to betray you, and it’s not going to spy on you.
Services is the new software. Apple has always done this, with both hardware and software, but as more software migrates to the cloud and becomes blended with media, payments and communication, it’s a natural step to invest more in services. They’re late to the game, really. They played with MobileMe back in the Steve Jobs era, but it’s taken a good 10 years to catch up, and under the Cook era, they’re really getting serious about it.
Privacy is a big pitch. They don’t allow advertisers to spy on you. They don’t give you fake news or propaganda, it’s curated by humans. With TV+, it’s family-friendly, you turn it on, nothing is going to embarrass you. It’s the trust thing that comes into the Apple brand.
It’s kind of a no-brainer. They built this massive platform and look at the giant growth of companies it’s enabled: Uber, Netflix, take your pick, are being built off this mobile platform that Apple invented. It’s foolish not to compete with these folks. Apple has a billion active users, and that’s a huge captive audience.
GeekWire: Cook is a private guy. What was the hardest part of getting information about Apple and him?
Kahney: It’s always hard to write about Apple because they are so secretive. Even years later, after they left, people don’t want to talk. I did loads of interviews and just to see people’s pure memories unspooling, and they haven’t talked about it with their wives or husbands — they don’t talk about it with anybody. It’s a really strange experience watching them relive these things they’ve never talked about.
With Cook, it’s even more difficult. He’s had absolutely no public life at all. Steve Jobs has been covered for decades. Even Jony Ive has much bigger profile than Cook. I think Cook has done like two or three on-the-record interviews during his whole career at Apple.
I didn’t look at his private life at all. This is a business biography, and he keeps his private life private, and I respect that. One rumor is that he’s dating some Silicon Valley VC, but I looked at that VC’s Instagram feed and there’s tons of pictures with this guy with his partner, and it’s obvious that is an implanted rumor.
GeekWire: His coming-out letter in Bloomberg was impactful for LGBTQ rights in the workplace. Can you speak more as to what Cook/Apple are doing to lead in diversity in the workplace?
Kahney: It was a very brave thing to do for someone in his position. I think it was beautifully phrased, like it was one of God’s greatest gifts to him, which took the wind out of sails of religious grounds. He says, “Look, I’m in your camp.” Apple’s stock didn’t tank, people weren’t protesting outside the stores, the culture moves on. Then the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage, and now there are like two or three other openly gay CEOs in the Fortune 500.
I think 10 years ago it would have been a big deal, like business suicide, to do something like that. Since then he’s been pretty vocal about LGBTQ issues. He’s a very big advocate of strong anti-discrimination laws; like 30 states still don’t have anti-discrimination laws on the books. He’s been asked in Alabama, where he’s from and when he went down there for lifetime achievement award, “When are you going to bring some of this Apple money to Alabama?” And he said he wouldn’t do it unless the state had stronger anti-discrimination laws on the books.
GeekWire: He’s also been more active about addressing Apple’s impact on the environment and improving supplier-chain conditions, including worker conditions in China, after coming under fire for that.
Kahney: He’s been vocal about several progressive issues. Apple’s stance on the environment has done a complete 180 since Jobs was involved, who didn’t do anything, and now in Silicon Valley, Apple is the first to be 100 percent renewable. And the worker supply chain is now a little less awful.
GeekWire: Apple was called out for human rights issues with manufacturing in China. As a very hands-on operations guy, do you think there was any way Cook didn’t know about this? Why did it take so long for Apple to step in?
Kahney: Around that time, in 2009 and 2010, the iPhone was growing like crazy, they were doubling the number of units they sold every year. Apple went to Foxconn because of cheap labor, because all these units are assembled by hand.
The secret of Foxconn was its flexibility. They have huge, city-like campuses making so many products, so if someone like Apple wants to double capacity overnight, they can do that. That’s why you had these suicides. Foxconn was hiring like crazy, bringing in all these kids from rural areas, and they’re all away from home, there’s a weird thing here. Many wanted to work as many hours as possible, and work yourself to death for a couple years, send some money home, and then leave to do their own thing.
Asking whether he’d do the same thing now? It’s hard to know, since he [Cook] was in charge back then. He does bear responsibility for that. He was COO, but he is more culpable, that’s his background, his baby. It was an awful time, and it’s terrible what happened. Jobs didn’t engage with it at all, saying, “Don’t worry about it. We’re all over it. Those aren’t sweatshops. They have health centers and swimming pools.” He wasn’t concerned. He was concerned about bad PR, not worker’s rights.
Cook, who came from working in factories, does care. If you look at latest supplier report about a month ago, I read through it, and, I think they found once incidence of child labor, and it’s funny, because they made the factory send him home.
They used to have hundreds and hundreds of cases of child labor in the factories. You gotta take Apple’s word for it. They’ve gotten rid of child labor and bonded labor, where someone pays bribe to get a job or pay off a debt. Apple’s been forcing companies to do this. The supply chain looks a lot more like conditions in the West than it used to. They still have a ways to go, and there is a bargaining problem China-wide, as it’s a totalitarian, communist state.
GeekWire: Let’s talk about Apple and the environment. Are they on track to being carbon neutral and using 100 percent renewable energy, even with all their suppliers?
Kahney: Apple’s supply chain is 75 percent of its carbon footprint. In a press release last week, they said that twice as many supply chain partners signed on than anticipated and claimed to be ahead of the game. I talked to Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives. Jackson was administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, appointed by President Barack Obama. She said they’ve committed to making supply chain 100 percent clean energy, and it took four years to get a third of them, and it will likely take another eight years to get the remaining two-thirds.
Even though Trump is talking up coal, “beautiful coal,” and how it’s coming back, it’s not. Solar is cheaper than coal now, and it’s the same thing with China, which is doing a lot with renewables simply because it’s cheaper, which is good news. So Apple is not only following this trend, they’re leading it.
GeekWire: Apple’s launched some great products under Cook, like the AirPods and new iPhones. There’s also been some missteps. What’s the next great thing?
Kahney: Healthcare is a big area of research, and the Apple Watch is the first medically certified wearable. As that develops, it could be a big deal. Who wouldn’t want to wear a device that could save their life? The watch is already a pretty good wellness partner, giving you motivation to get up and exercise.
In health research, there’s a big debate about digital health records. Would you trust Google with your health records? Hell no, I would not. Facebook, no. But I would trust Apple.
Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level by Leander Kahney is out now.