Is Apple’s Lack of New Breakthroughs Due to Lack of Opportunity or Lack of Steve Jobs?

(p. 15) 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 New York Times reporter Tripp Mickle, covers Ive’s and Cook’s careers, and how they and the company changed after they took over.

. . .

In the epilogue, Mickle drops his reporter’s detachment to apportion responsibility for the firm’s failure to launch another transformative product. Cook is blamed for being aloof and unknowable, a bad partner for Ive, “an artist who wanted to bring empathy to every product.” Ive is also dinged for taking on “responsibility for software design and the management burdens that he soon came to disdain.” 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 C.E.O. as Jobs had, but no one ever thought he could, including Jobs, who on his deathbed advised Cook never to ask what Steve would do: “Just do what’s right.”

Ive and Cook wanted another iPhone, but, as Mickle’s exhaustive reporting makes clear, there was not another such device to be made. Self-driving cars were too hard, health devices too regulated, television protected in ways music had not been, and even the earbuds and watch, devices they actually shipped, were peripheral, technically and conceptually, to Apple’s greatest product.

Epilogue aside, the book is an amazingly detailed portrait of the permanent tension between strategy and luck: Companies make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. What happened after Steve was that Cook’s greatest opportunities were in Apple’s future, Ive’s in its past.

For the full review, see:

Clay Shirky. “The Watchmen.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 29, 2022): 15.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated May 2, 2022, and has the title “Apple Inc., ‘After Steve’.”)

The book under review is:

Mickle, Tripp. After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

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