Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Breadth and Depth

What defines Tim Cook’s Apple?

The end of this month will mark five years into his tenure presiding over the company — the third longest-serving CEO in Apple’s history, behind John Sculley and, of course, Steve Jobs. There are a few things I think are generally agreeable about Cook’s style: a less rigid corporate image, a more noticeable social impact, and a (slightly) more approachable executive team. Back in the Jobs-and-Katie Cotton era, a magazine was lucky if it got an interview, and they were typically only proposed if there was a major new product to show — recall the famous Time and Newsweek iMac G4 and iPod covers, for instance.

Today’s Apple is more comfortable with providing more frequent conversations with the executive staff. Mashable has received several exclusives in the past couple of years and, this week, Fast Company and the Washington Post were both granted interviews with Tim Cook. Fast Company also spent time with Craig Federighi, Eddy Cue, and Bozoma Saint John.

Those interviews underscore one of the most defining characteristics of Cook’s Apple: innovation at scale. Rick Tetzeli:

Apple’s CEO is a deeply grounded man who has not been blinded by Jobs’s brilliant legacy. Jobs only came to appreciate the incremental nature of innovation during the second half of his life; you get the sense that Cook understood and loved process from birth. This focus on detail is often mentioned as a weakness. But, in the five years under Cook, Apple’s revenue has tripled, its workforce has doubled, and its global reach has expanded rapidly. That’s a remarkable record. Cook has shown a great capacity for getting improvements from every corner of the company, and for then deploying those gains across a wider canvas of software, hardware, and services than Jobs ever had at his disposal. He will never be as flashy as Jobs, but he may just be the perfect CEO for the behemoth Apple has become.

It’s hard to fathom the size of Apple’s operations today. In their fiscal 2011, they sold 72 million iPhones; they now sell that many in a single quarter. In the past six years, their “Services” business — which includes the iTunes and App Stores, Apple Pay, iCloud, and other online services — has grown nearly ten times, from a $636 million business in Q3 2010, to a $5.9 billion business in Q3 2016. Apple doesn’t reveal the number of active iCloud users, but I’d be willing to bet it’s dozens of times greater than the number of MobileMe users in its heyday.

But this rapid expansion has not come for free, as can be seen in a resurgence of the “Apple is doomed” cottage industry. In his Fast Company interview, Eddy Cue explained his perspective on the perceived decline in Apple’s quality:

When we were the Mac company, if we impacted 1% of our customers, it was measured in thousands. Now if we impact 1% of our customers, it’s measured in tens of millions. That’s a problem, right — things are going to be perceived differently. Our products are way better than they used to be, but there’s a higher bar, and I’m okay with that.

It doesn’t really matter whether there’s a real decline in Apple’s software quality, or if it’s mostly an exaggeration bolstered by a larger user base and increased media coverage. What is concerning is the sentiment I perceive in Cue’s explanation — that a bug affecting 1% of users is comparable in 2016 to one affecting 1% of users in, say, 2006 or 1996. But, as he says, there’s an enormous chasm in the actual number of users affected, and that’s what’s particularly concerning. If Apple is pushing out, to be generous, one-quarter of the number of these bugs as they were ten years ago, that means that they’re still affecting orders of magnitude more users.

These frustrations coincide with the rise of a related worry: with whisperings of an Apple vehicle, alongside an exploration into original media, there’s a growing sentiment that Apple’s focus is drifting.

These two narratives converge in a way that I think makes longtime Apple customers uncomfortable. For those who recall the Apple of the ’90s, there’s a lingering doubt that the company can juggle so many projects at once while maintaining a focus on quality. I’m not sure that’s right, but I’m also not sure it’s entirely inaccurate.

There are, of course, key differences between the Apple of the mid-’90s and the company of today. The grunge-era Apple didn’t just lack focus — it lacked an idea of what focus is, and what to strive for. The post-renaissance Apple is much more attuned to the purpose and vision for their products:

Over its 40 years of existence, Apple has been seen as a laggard in music, video, the Internet, telephony, wireless, content creation, networking, semiconductors, software applications, touch screens, gesture controls, materials, messaging, news aggregation, social media, voice recognition, and mapping. (That’s not even close to being an exhaustive list.) Nevertheless, the company has managed to survive by doing an unmatched job of integrating the most important of those technologies into products that eventually delight many customers. By the time Jobs died, Apple’s innovation process — the way it accomplishes that job of creating, acquiring, improving, and integrating technology — was polished and proven. It was arguably Jobs’s greatest gift to his successor.

Cook has maintained this, growing R&D spending while introducing products that are defining entire categories: the MacBook for the high-end ultraportable laptop market, and the Apple Watch for smartwatches. There are clear echoes of his predecessor in those products.

Yet the Apple Watch, in particular, felt a little rushed. I’ve been running watchOS 3 since the first beta and, without giving too much away, you should know that the speed and UI improvements are very real. Could Apple have released watchOS 3 as watchOS 1 or 2? Probably not. But could someone have foreseen that dedicating the side button to a single set of communication functions only available to Apple Watch owners was, at best, an overly-optimistic assessment of first-year Watch ownership? Probably, yes.1

This year also sees the redesign of two major efforts launched just last year: both News and Apple Music are receiving significant facelifts designed to alleviate confusion and make the apps more user-friendly. The Apple TV is also getting a dark mode this year, presumably because having a bright white UI on an object used in a darkened room can be quite glaring.

That’s not to say that Cook’s Apple is debuting more duds than Jobs’. Consider, for example, the number of times Apple attempted and failed to do online services before iCloud. iCloud isn’t perfect, of course, nor is it as reliable as we’d like, but it’s good enough that I entrust my contacts, calendars, keychain, and photo syncing to it. I think the ratio of hits to misses has remained constant, or perhaps even improved slightly. But the scale of today’s Apple is affecting that perception, and that’s not an excuse. Scale must be managed.

There’s an implicit unsaid followup to many of the questions about the debut of Maps and Apple Music, which goes something like this: In what specific ways are the lessons learned from the launch of these products impacted the development and preparations for the introduction of the next big thing, whatever that may be? In the vein of the attributes that define Tim Cook’s Apple, I’m confident that attention to detail at an unprecedented scale is something they’re getting better at, though not to a great enough extent that it feels fully managed yet.


  1. Perhaps the Digital Touch features coming in iOS 10’s Messages app were supposed to debut alongside the Watch, but were delayed. Just a guess. ↩︎