There’s a must-read profile of Apple CEO Tim Cook over at the New York Times. Cook declined to be interviewed, but the piece, by Matt Richtel and Brian X. Chen, features insights into Apple's design process from design chief Jonathan Ive and a slew of unnamed lower-level employees.
The impression we’re left with is that while Steve Jobs was a hyper-focused artist, who took a hands-on approach to every major product release, Tim Cook is a general who knows how to delegate. From the Times:
Lower-level employees praise Mr. Cook’s approachability and intellect. But some say he is less hands-on in developing products than his predecessor. They point to the development of the so-called iWatch—the "smartwatch" that Apple observers are eagerly awaiting as the next world-beating gadget. Mr. Cook is less involved in the minutiae of product engineering for the watch, and has instead delegated those duties to members of his executive cabinet… Mr. Cook appears to be interested in the smartwatch’s broader implications—for instance, that a watch might monitor heart rate and other vital measures, thus improving health and limiting doctor visits, according to these people.
It’s worth remembering that Tim Cook was recruited by Jobs specifically to deal with logistics, to crack the whip on the global supply chain behind Apple products, and maximize profitability by reducing costly inventory wasting away in warehouses or on store shelves. If you were to say Steve Jobs made the iPhone (an admittedly gross oversimplification of the cross-team design and engineering challenge), you could say Tim Cook made the iPhone profitable.
Marrying this history with the New York Times profile, you can see Cook, not as the guy in the black turtle neck eating lunch with Jony Ive every day, but as the man standing over the giant Risk board while everyone else makes the magic. Ive drops in to give him updates a few times a week.
In this sense, Tim Cook is the ideal CEO for the new era of Apple. The company is not just the quirky underdog alternative to the PC; Apple design has conquered the world. Hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads later, Apple got its happy ending, but then the movie never ended. So Wall Street sits in the audience throwing popcorn while Apple stalls with old-fashioned market tricks.
Today, the next big product still matters for Apple, but as the Times points out, even if the iWatch sells 10 million units in the first year, shareholders will only see a 1% return. Apple needs to maintain its investment in magically designed products, but it has simply grown too big for any single cog to be that important—or worthy of the full attention of the CEO—anymore.
That’s why Tim Cook is more interested in the idea of Apple in the health care business than he is Apple in the iWatch business. Selling 10 million iWatches might make Apple a billion dollars, but the U.S .health care industry alone is worth more than $3 trillion a year. One percent of that is $30 billion. The iWatch could be Apple's latest example of unrivaled design. Cook needs to get it into position to claim an even bigger piece of the world for Apple.