Apple chief Tim Cook passes his first test
"The decision to come to Apple in 1998 was not so obvious," Tim Cook told a graduation ceremony at Alabama's University of Auburn in May 2010.
"Apple in early 1998 was very different. There was no iPad, no iMac or iPhone. There wasn't even an iPod."
Lasting just under 20 minutes, Cook's description of joining Apple provided a rare glimpse of a private man who, just two months ago, ascended to the most powerful throne in Silicon Valley.
On Tuesday, more than a year on, we got a second look. And this time the audience measured in the millions and the expectations were far higher than speaking at Auburn, where Cook left with a degree in engineering.
"This is my first product launch since being named CEO," Cook told the audience at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California. "I'm sure you didn't know that." Having opened with a one-liner, Cook then delivered the rest of his address without betraying any nerves or looking at the autocue, according to those who saw the event.
Cook, of course, will have known that trying to imitate Steve Jobs would have been fruitless. Decked out in New Balance trainers, jeans and a black sweater, Apple's co-founder turned the product launch into the most powerful weapon in the company's marketing arsenal. The press are barely allowed to ask questions, but still lavish valuable column inches on the latest gadget to roll off Apple's production line. It's little wonder that the latest generation of technology entrepreneurs have tried to recreate the Jobs recipe. "It's a key part of the Apple package," said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners.
But as even the most militant marketing executive would admit, a brilliant presentation won't make anyone buy a product they don't want. Especially not on the industrial scale that Apple has been selling them. A record 20.34m iPhones and 9.25m iPads were dispatched in the second quarter. While the product launch has become an important ingredient in Apple's mystique, the real challenge for Cook isn't whether he's wearing New Balance or Nike trainers. It's whether under his leadership Apple can continue to reinvent the world of consumer technology in the way it did under Jobs. We may not get a quick answer.
The latest iPhone, as well as the next version of the iPad that's expected in the spring, will have the creative fingerprints of Jobs all over them. Having stepped down as chief executive for health reasons, Jobs is now chairman and it's not clear what his future involvement will be. What's clearer is that Cook faces tougher competition from Google and Amazon as smartphones and tablet computers continue to consign the PC to history. Equally important, though, are the relatively untapped markets like China that are still available to Apple and the consumer technologies – such as television – that it has so far failed to bring under its spell.
On Tuesday Cook offered plenty of time for Apple's senior executives to strut their stuff. And we may well see an Apple with more public faces now that Cook is in charge. Questions remain over whether Cook can provide the inspiration for another decade of best-selling products, but Wall Street has no doubt that he can get the devices to the customer. He is credited with greatly improving Apple's supply chain.
Observers say Tuesday's test was passed, but it will have also been a reminder to Cook that there's plenty required to keep Apple the world's most valuable company.