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Are we still judging Apple by Steve Jobs?

Posted: , posted by Michael H.

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Are we still judging Apple by Steve Jobs?
As we've mentioned a number of times now, often in defense of Google, companies have personalities, insofar as companies reflect the personality of their CEOs. We have mentioned this in order to squash silly rumors that Google is out to steal your private data, or is planning to implode the Android ecosystem by closing it off and making its own devices with Motorola. This time though, we have to take a moment to consider how this philosophy affects Apple. Apple is known as Steve Jobs' company, and essentially an extension of the man himself. The trouble is that Steve is no longer the CEO; Tim Cook is. 

And, that is where we need to make a point here. We're talking about how Apple does business not Apple products. Apple products are still a matter of opinion. The products won't change in core philosophy. They will still be geared for ease and integration, even if that means limitations. That may not be everyone's style, but we can't begrudge the choice to those who love Apple products, and there are a lot of those people out there. What we are talking about is how Apple has done business, which has been inexorably tied to Steve Jobs' personality, and the fact that Apple may change how it does business with Tim Cook in charge.  

Over the course of the life of Apple, the company has been an ambitious, cocky, but lovable upstart under the leadership of a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; an in-over-its-head visionless mess under John Sculley, Michael Spindler, and Gil Amelio; and a focused, innovative, and vengeful profit-machine under a matured Steve Jobs. The question is: what kind of company will it be under Tim Cook? 

Steve Jobs' Apple

Steve Jobs was an incredibly smart man with a focused vision and an eye for design, especially in regards to minimalism. He was also moody, often cruel, obsessed with image, and able to live in his "reality distortion field" as Walter Isaacson said. As a reflection of this, Apple products have been simple, well designed, and focused/integrated, while Apple the company has been vindictive, often litigious, but with a certain coolness. 

Are we still judging Apple by Steve Jobs?
Apple often threatened or sued other companies, which in and of itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but Apple always had a certain edge to its lawsuits. The company would always go for blood, aiming to enforce injunctions on products that it (Steve) saw as infringing (stealing) its (his) patents (ideas). Of course, we all know that Steve once said that he wanted to "destroy Android" and wage "thermonuclear war" over what he saw as a "stolen" product. On that path, Apple sued a number of Android manufacturers including HTC, Motorola, and especially targeted Samsung, and sought injunctions on devices, eventually forced both HTC and Samsung to change products to avoid patent litigation. 

Apple used highly questionable manufacturing plants in Asia, and never had to really answer for it under Steve Jobs. The same things that were shown in that now famous ABC investigation of Foxconn have been happening for years, but no one ever had the courage to take the protest directly to Apple HQ like we saw last month. 

Apple product announcements were big, theatrical events with iconic images and an incredible, amazing, magical amount of superlatives. 

Moving past Steve

Unfortunately, Steve has passed, and with his passing, there is an inevitable shift in the way Apple conducts business. Although Steve vowed revenge on Eric Schmidt and Android, it's highly unlikely (though not technically impossible) that he left it as a request in his will that the war be completed. We have already seen that begin to shift, as Apple recently offered Android manufacturers a licensing deal for use of its patents. As we mentioned before, suing over patent violation is nothing new, but rather than Steve's aim of a kill-shot, most patent lawsuits end up with licensing agreements, just like the one that Microsoft has with over half of all Android manufacturers, and the one that Motorola offered to Apple to settle their patent dispute. This is the traditional way of business; don't try to destroy competitors, just profit from them. 

Are we still judging Apple by Steve Jobs?
As far as design of products, we can assume that the company will continue its trend of excellence as long as Jony Ive is working there, because he was always considered the true genius of the relationship, whereas Steve was more of a collaborator/visionary. There is no reason not to trust Jony Ive, but we have yet to see what come after Steve in the design department, because the iPhone 4S and new iPad are both essentially identical to their predecessors. 

And, that brings us to Tim Cook. He's an intelligent man with a passion for efficiency, due to his background in supply chain management. The rest of what makes up the man is still not fully known, though we have seen that he is not as vengeful as Steve with his offer of compromise with Android makers. He has also started a new era of relative transparency with Apple, which has been more open about the companies it uses for production, and has joined the Fair Labor Association. These are small concessions, but potentially meaningful ones, because Apple is seen as a sort of role model for other companies. Plenty of other companies use similar business practices, but don't get the level of heat because there is a certain fervor around Apple products, both from fans and detractors. 

We can't say completely, because the timeline is fairly short, but it seems as though Tim Cook's Apple is a more conscientious and responsible company. It has been more open about its manufacturing process, and although it is a very small change, Apple has begun taking smaller profit margins on devices, which is something that the company would also need to do to build its products more ethically as has been demanded by critics. 

A new Apple

But at the new iPad announcement, Cook was subtly clear that he is not Steve Jobs. To an extent, the new iPad announcement was something of a eulogy to Steve Jobs. The company didn't have time to really design a tribute to Steve with the iPhone 4S announcement. The closest they got there was that Tim cook wore a black shirt tucked into jeans, which seemed like something of an homage. 

Are we still judging Apple by Steve Jobs?
The new iPad announcement had all of the trappings of a Steve Jobs' Apple announcement: heavy rumors, spectacle, slides, and a moving ending. Still, the entire affair seemed to be both eulogy to Steve, and introduction to Tim. We still had the amazing superlatives, but most came from Phil Schiller, not Tim Cook. We were not given a "one more thing..." to wow us, but a moving message from the new CEO to his team. Even the naming of the new iPad broke from the traditions set by Steve Jobs, as though this device was not a continuation of the iPads that came before, but was a new device from a new company. And, possibly most telling, we had the introduction of a new Apple logo. The logo itself is again both a tribute to Steve Jobs with its vaguely tie-dyed aesthetic, but it is a clear indication that this is a new Apple. 

Many Apple critics/haters are still clinging to the same old arguments that the company is overly litigious, hypocritical about patent disputes, and constantly releasing the same products. The last argument is pure bias, which could be applied to any company really. Any yearly iteration on hardware is going to be a slow evolution and not an epic change (as Apple marketing claims, but of course that is the job of marketing.) As far as the former arguments, time will tell, but the early indications are that this is not the same Apple. The company may sue over patent disputes, but many companies do the same thing, and if Apple aims for licensing deals rather than injunctions, there is no difference in practice than patent lawsuits that we have seen from Microsoft, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, or Nokia. 

There will always be Apple haters out there, but the same arguments may not be there for too long, because the personality of the company is changing. This isn't Steve Jobs' Apple anymore, it's Jony Ive and Tim Cook's. Maybe that means something. It is a bit too early to tell, but at the very least the company should get a period to prove itself before the same jabs are thrown. It may very well be the same company it has always been, but at least right now, it seems to be doing business in a slightly different way. 

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