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Mossberg: The post-Jobs Apple has soared financially, but lacks a breakthrough product
Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.
Five years ago last week, the legendary Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO after an amazing 14-year run that took the technology company from the edge of disaster to the heights of glory. He personally selected his COO, Tim Cook, as the new CEO, and passed away six weeks later.
So, how has Apple changed in the first five years of the Tim Cook era? How is it different from the peak of the Jobs era?
The short answer is that the company has surged financially to heights Jobs likely never dreamed of. It has also refined its popular product line and retained most of its senior talent.
But Cook’s Apple has yet to produce the kind of new, game-changing product Jobs was famous for launching. Or, if it has, we don’t know it yet.
However, hard as it may be to believe, five years may be too short a time in which to judge the Cook era. But with a new iPhone launch expected next week, it’s worth looking back on how the company has changed in the past five years.
Dollars and sales
As a longtime product reviewer, I’m less interested in any company’s financials than I am in its products. But the financials can’t be ignored. You’ll find a very good summary giving a sense of Cook’s reign in this five-chart post by Recode Editor in Chief Dan Frommer.
But there are some notable highlights. Over his five-year tenure, CEO Cook has roughly doubled Apple’s revenues and profits to an astounding $234 billion and $53 billion, respectively. Recent quarters have shown a rare downward trend, but the five-year pattern is still impressive. And this summer Apple sold its billionth iPhone, less than a decade after its introduction. That’s fewer units than all Android phones combined, but phenomenal for a single, premium product line. In just one quarter last December, iPhone sales exceeded the annual total for Jobs’s entire last year in fiscal 2011. But, again, sales have recently been declining.
Cook has evolved Apple’s core products in ways we don’t know whether Jobs would have done, with considerable success. In 2014, he launched two models of the iPhone 6, one of which matched the large screen size of Samsung’s phones. It was well done, and sales soared. Last year, slightly revised 6s models in the same sizes also sold well. He also introduced a huge 13-inch iPad Pro, with a snap-on physical keyboard, which Jobs thought unnecessary, and a stylus, which Jobs mocked and hated, even scorning the idea during the original iPhone launch. This year, Cook followed up with a smaller iPad Pro. The IPad Pro is doing well in the enterprise market, but it doesn’t appear to have yet reversed overall falling iPad sales.
Cook has also launched a beefed-up, app-based Apple TV, which finds itself in a crowded, confusing market of set-top boxes and so-called smart TVs. But it’s only a remnant of a big TV package, replete with a new programming service, that the company had long been hoping to provide. It’s ambitious, but lags in sales behind Roku and Amazon devices, partly due to its high price of $149 for the base model, and $199 for a model with more memory.
When Jobs was CEO, he dazzled the tech world by running the table with a string of new products that other companies scrambled to match: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and the iPad. That’s a hard act to follow, and Apple has struggled to do so in the last five years.
Cook’s biggest hardware bet, the Apple Watch, which began shipping last year, dominates the tiny global market for smartwatches, but has yet to become either the tech must-have or the popular fashion accessory it was meant to be. A new model may appear as soon as next week, with a completely revised user interface, which is in effect an admission that the initial interface wasn’t good enough.
Meanwhile, the Mac lineup has stagnated, with some models approaching years without an update. The only new Mac introduced recently is the MacBook, which offers a vision of the future, but is costly, slow, requires adapters to work with its forward-looking single USB C port, and has an odd, flat keyboard I find uncomfortable. Updates to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are reported to be in the works, however.
Apple Pay, a contactless payment system for recent iPhones and the Apple Watch, is making steady progress, but it depends on external factors, like merchant acceptance.
Apple Music, the company’s new streaming service based on its acquisition of Beats, is being overhauled in iOS 10 — at least in terms of its user interface — because it was lambasted for complexity and errors.
3D Touch, a new navigation tool that detects pressure on the iPhone screen to perform quick actions and peer into items like emails without opening them, hasn’t gained wide acceptance. It’s in some apps, but it’s still too hard to discover, missing on the iPads, and absent on Apple’s surprisingly popular iPhone SE.
But there are some major mitigating factors. First, the global economy is in the slowest economic recovery anyone can recall. Second, Cook is having to compete with a much more polished Android and a much more polished line of Samsung phones than Jobs ever did. The smartphone market in developed countries seems saturated. PC and tablet replacement cycles are longer.
Finally, it’s crucial to remember that Jobs’s successes didn’t happen overnight. While it was introduced in 2001, the iPod didn’t really take off big-time until 2004-2005. And it took a few years from its 2007 launch for the iPhone to begin hitting double-digit quarterly unit sales. So the jury is out on the Apple Watch.
Cook’s real innovation may lie in his efforts to broaden the company’s markets. He has worked tirelessly to grow Apple’s presence in China, even in the face of some great native Chinese phones. And, in a move Jobs would likely have scorned, he has partnered with enterprise companies like IBM, Cisco and Box to sell vastly more Apple devices into big companies by creating specialized apps and tools for them. This effort especially focuses on the iPad, whose consumer sales have been crumbling.
But, again, it’s much too soon to know if these bets will be winners or losers in the long run.
Privacy and security
Cook has shown a big commitment to both privacy and security by encrypting most iPhone data end-to-end and in a way that even Apple can't decrypt. And he showed real guts earlier this year by refusing an FBI demand that he weaken that encryption to help the Bureau search a dead suspect’s phone. He argued that any software Apple built to do that would likely fall into the hands of bad actors and be sought by dictatorships worldwide.
Jobs was personally committed to privacy and security, and though we can’t know if he would have put the company on the line in this fight, Cook was firm in protecting the values of the company.
With iPhone and company sales falling in recent quarters, and likely to do so again, Apple needs the all-new product breakthrough that has eluded Cook — sooner rather than later. The company is seriously working on augmented reality, though I don’t know details. Like everyone else, it’s toiling away on artificial intelligence and machine learning, though it’s focused more on building smarts into individual devices rather than in the cloud, like most of its competition. And it continues to work on automotive technology, though it isn’t clear whether that means an entire car.
But all of those potential payoffs are a ways off. Right now, Apple just needs an exciting new iPhone. After I saw Samsung’s gorgeous new Galaxy S7 in March, I wrote a column calling for the next iPhone to be “spectacular.” Based on rumors, that much oomph may not be in the offing until 2017.
Still, the 2016 iPhone 7 we expect to see unveiled next week needs to provide a jolt of the old Jobs-ian product excitement while Cook’s biggest bets, known and unknown, slowly build.