Both men helped save a sinking Apple in the 1990s – Ive first, overseeing the design of a new line of computers with candy-coloured transparent cases
BOOK REVIEW | Literature
AFTER STEVE: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul
Author: Tripp Mickle
Publisher: William Morrow
Between 2001 and 2010, Apple launched the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air and the iPad; each redefined its product category. Of these, the iPhone was the most important. Its obvious superiority forced every other company selling expensive phones to copy Apple’s design or collapse (Nokia, BlackBerry and Palm were gutted within years.)
Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and animating spirit, died in 2011, leaving the firm in the hands of Jony Ive, the British-born designer-savant, and Tim Cook, a child of Alabama who’d become a master of supply chains and production costs. After Steve, by the Wall Street Journal reporter Tripp Mickle, covers Ive and Cook’s careers, and how they and the company changed after they took over.
The book traces the evolution and end of the partnership, involving a compendious review of public sources and over 200 interviews with current and former Apple employees and advisers; the cast of characters runs to four pages. Some of this technique is in response to Apple’s “culture of omertà” — apparently, neither I’ve nor Cook agreed to speak to the author for attribution.
Both men helped save a sinking Apple in the 1990s — Ive first, overseeing the design of a new line of computers with candy-coloured 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.
That same year, Jobs tapped Cook to rework Apple’s inefficient production line. Cook, who’d previously run the supply chain for Compaq, was famously demanding and detail-oriented. When his staff presented a plan to increase inventory turnover from 25 times a year to 100 to save money on “spoiling parts,” Cook calmly asked, “How would you get to a thousand?” Joe O’Sullivan, who was running operations when Cook arrived, said, “I saw grown men cry. … He went into a level of detail that was phenomenal.”
Perfectionism isn’t enough to create a great product, however. After Jobs’s death, home automation, health care devices, self-driving cars, televisions and various headphones were all explored, and some launched. But for most of Ive’s remaining tenure, the centrepiece of Apple’s device work — and therefore of Mickle’s book — would be the Apple Watch.
Apple’s wealth underwrote Ive’s perfectionism. Leather for the wristband was sourced from tanneries across Europe; countless hours were poured into the design and manufacture of the customised winding crown. Determined from the beginning to make ultra-expensive versions, Ive requested — and got — a new 18-karat alloy that was twice as durable as ordinary gold.
As Ive acquires more control than he had over the iPhone, the watch shifts from a useful screen on your wrist into a fashion object. Meetings with the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, a product event in Paris and the creation of a $17,000 model run alongside gradually reduced expectations for its health tracking and battery life. By the time it finally launches and sales fall short of projections, the reader has seen it coming, one decision at a time.
In contrast, Cook faced a welter of events. He was called before Congress over taxes. He had to apologise for poor performance in the earliest iteration of Apple Maps. In 2014, Cook made history in Bloomberg Businessweek, writing, “While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” He was the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to come out. And of course, in 2018, he became the first leader of a public company worth a trillion dollars. Then two trillion. Then three.
Mickle builds a dense, granular mosaic of the firm’s trials and triumphs, showing us how Apple, built on Ive’s successes in the 2000s, became Cook’s company in the 2010s. Ive, long since knighted, becomes increasingly captivated by opportunities outside Apple and goes part time in 2015. Finally, in 2019, Ive leaves for good.
In the epilogue, Mickle drops his reporter’s detachment to apportion responsibility for the firm’s failure to launch another transformative product. By the end, the sense that the two missed a chance to create a worthy successor to the iPhone is palpable.
It’s also hooey, and the best evidence for that is the previous 400 pages. It’s true that after Jobs died, Apple didn’t produce another device as important as the iPhone, but Apple didn’t produce another device that important before he died either. It’s also true that Cook did not play the role of CEO as Jobs had, but no one thought he could, including Jobs, who on his deathbed advised Cook never to ask what Steve would do: “Just do what’s right.”
What happened after Steve was that Cook’s greatest opportunities were in Apple’s future, Ive’s in its past. When the Next Big Thing turned out to be services — iCloud, Apple Music, the App Store — built on top of the Last Big Thing, Cook adapted brilliantly. He took Jobs’s advice and did what was right, but in ways that put less of a premium on the kind of work Ive was best at. The moral of that story is there is no moral.
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