Who's Tim Cook?

Who's Tim Cook?
The end of an era inevitably marks a new one. Apple's CEO, founder and spiritual guide Steve Jobs resigned yesterday afternoon, 35 years after he set up shop together with Steve Wozniak, passing the torch to current COO Tim Cook.

Not that Steve had much other choice - another likely candidate - Ron Johnson, Apple's former retail guru - left for J.C. Penny, while the design whiz Jonathan Ive was rumored to need relocation. Neither Ron, nor Jonathan, or anyone else of Apple's executives, possess the breadth of reach into every aspect of Apple's existence that Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have.

But who exactly is this Tim Cook guy, taking over what is now the most powerful tech company? His character, background and vision all of a sudden became extremely important for the Apple way, despite that SJ will reportedly remain involved in strategic planning and decision-making.

To start off we'd just remind you that Apple only became the richest and most influential tech company in the last few years, since the iPhone inception. A capacitive touchscreen was demoed to Steve Jobs, destined for the creation of his dream computer without a physical keyboard, or what are now tablets. SJ said in an interview that he immediately thought kinetic scrolling and finger gestures are ideal for a phone without buttons, and put the iPad project on the backburner for a year or two.

The day-to-day grind, however, belonged to Tim Cook, who was the Chief Operating Officer, a title which means that he had been the most involved person in each and every strategic and operational decision Apple has made during the period in which it became the company with the largest market cap in the world.

Timothy "Tim" D. Cook is a slender, 50 year old native of Robertsdale, Alabama, where he grew up in a good old-fashioned American family of a shipyard worker and a homemaker. Schooled in Industrial Design at Auburn University, and obtaining an MBA from Duke makes him a techie with business acumen, the perfect Silicon Valley fit.

And indeed, before joining Apple in 1998, Tim Cook worked at IBM for 12 years as director of North American Fulfillment, then moved on to be COO at a smaller computer reseller Intelligent Electronics, and had a six months stint at Compaq as VP of Corporate Materials, where he was noticed by Steve Jobs and poached for Apple's Senior VP of Worldwide Operations.

So far, so good, but what might be the exemplary feats that Steve Jobs noticed to name him his successor? Referred to as "the genius behind Steve Jobs" and "the most powerful gay man in the Silicon Valley", Tim Cook might not be behind the touchscreen phone idea, but he is the one behind Apple's insane profit margins and attention to detail in execution.

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First off, he has been visionary enough to streamline the supply and logistics chain of Apple immediately after being hired, making it the state-of-the-art operation it is now, Walmart-style. He got Apple out of the low-margin electronics manufacturing business, closed capital-intensive factories and warehouses and outsourced production, leaving Apple focused on ideas, innovation and execution. Let's not forget that his previous employer IBM just noticed in 2004 that there is no money in hardware, but rather in software, services and user experience, and sold its PC division to the Chinese from Lenovo, something that the other stalwart HP is just intending to do now.

Alright, he is good at cost-cutting and running a slender operation, but what hints do we have about Tim Cook's non-pragmatic qualities, besides the fact that he is gay, which stereotypically should entail traits like a healthy dose of imagination, attention to detail, and a taste for the finer things in life - we just described most of Apple's gadgets and software, so on that front we think Apple is safe. Tim Cook himself has mentioned at events that his main guidance is his intuition, but has been quick to remind that after that comes planning and hard work.

Digging further into personal traits, we find out that he is a workaholic, sending emails at 4:30am to prepare for the executive morning meeting, while most of his free time is spent in the gym as he is a fitness maniac, biking, or hiking in various national parks around the country. To top off the tabloid-style recap, he is a Nike person (and even sits on the company's board), who constantly eats energy bars.

Another interesting thing we are learning about him is that he's very calm, unemotional on the outside, but constantly pushing people's buttons and demanding their utmost performance. Still renting a bachelor pad in Palo Alto in 2007, he wears jeans most of the time, and doesn't flash his personal wealth in any means, or seek social recognition, but is said to be involved in many charities. We guess such asceticism might indicate an end to the invigorating keynotes that are the hallmark of Apple's product unveilings. Here is Tim Cook's commencement speech at his alma mater Auburn University in May last year to judge for yourselves. Hey, he even inserted the "one more thing" phrase, which should be patented by now, so even if he can't be Steve Jobs at product launches, he can approximate him well enough.

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Some would argue that Apple doesn't need that much imagination or pizzazz any more. The company has gathered so much momentum (and money), that it just has to push forward and refine the current trends, which were actually set by itself. We'd disagree, though - Tim Cook is taking the helm at a peak time, when Apple's opponents are fully awake and aware of its plans for world domination, and are fighting back. He no longer has the hapless Nokia, Motorola or Sony to take by surprise, like a few years ago. Google's Android is gaining market share in leaps and bounds, Microsoft is taking the most drastic steps in its history with Windows 8 running on ARM-based tablets, and the giant Nokia has become its manufacturing arm for Windows Phone.

2012 will be an entirely different year for the mobile and computer businesses than the last 2-3 years, and it remains to be seen if Apple will keep its march under Tim Cook. Some are arguing that we are already seeing cracks in the company's trademark vision and flawless execution, citing iOS 5, which is arguably a patchwork of ideas borrowed from here and there, Mac OS X Lion, and the mishaps with the latest version of Final Cut Pro X. Others comment that Apple will be becoming the new Microsoft, and the lawsuits against Android are an ominous sign about it, although Apple is arguably playing a pretty old Silicon Valley game here.

Apple is undoubtedly aware about all of these issues, and the way the Steve Jobs resignation letter was presented, shows that it has a well-thought succession strategy in place. With its cash pile to near $100 billion in a few quarters, it most likely has entirely different peaks to conquer, tucked in the minutes of the strategy brainstorming sessions.

The most often cited is the TV business, which will be huge, and, considering Apple already has won the smartphone and tablet bottomline war, it only makes sense to set focus on something new and surprising. And it will be Tim Cook ushering Apple in that new era, but what will happen after the current product pipeline, conceived with SJ's guidance, runs out, is anyone's guess. Which just made 2012 and the following years all the more interesting.

Watch one of Tim Cook's most recent recorded public appearances in the Q&A session after announcing Verizon's version of the iPhone 4, which was one of his first public speaking tests after assuming the job from Steve Jobs.

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