Today, angel investor Jason Calacanis suggested on CNBC that Apple should ditch Tim Cook in favor of a product guy. That's not an entirely ridiculous idea on its face. After all, Apple was run pretty successfully by maybe the most famous "product guy" ever, Steve Jobs. It's more the individual he suggested take Cook's place that's attracting attention: Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk.
Jason Calacanis on Apple: They are resting on the laurels of Steve Jobs' legacy. They need to put Tim Cook in another position and get Elon Musk in there and let him run the company. Find somebody like that, somebody who is maniacal about product. pic.twitter.com/mAg0ZdoFJJ-- Christine Wang (@christiiineeee) September 9, 2019
Listen, to be clear, no one really thinks Musk should take over Apple other than one business news pundit--because, frankly, that would be a terrible idea. I'll explain why in a minute. It is interesting though, and even worth considering, whether or not Apple can continue to deliver the products its customer expect without someone as hyper focused on the product as Steve Jobs. That's especially true with the recent departure of Jony Ive and worth thinking about as we await tomorrow's big Keynote event.
The Next Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs holds a sort of mythical place in the Apple narrative, and for good reason. He founded the company (with Steve Wozniak) in a garage, conceived personal computers as a thing that huge numbers of consumers could actually use, only to eventually be run out by his own board. His second act was one of business history's greatest, delivering such iconic products as the iMac, iPod, iPad, and of course--the iPhone.
As a result, the company grew from a market cap of roughly $3 billion, to over $340 billion in 15 years. Of course, for much of that time, Jobs had one powerful weapon at his side--Tim Cook.
I don't think anyone would argue that Tim Cook is a product person. I don't even think Tim Cook would argue that. He's an operations guy--a numbers cruncher--and he's really, really good at it. (That $340 billion is now $1 trillion.)
Time For Change
Under Cook's leadership, Apple transformed from a personal computer company that was selling about 40 million iPhones a year (in 2010) to the world's first trillion dollar company. A company that now makes more money selling iPhones in a quarter, than all but roughly the top 50 companies in the Fortune 500 make in a year.
Still, iPhone sales are down. This year's models (expected to be announced tomorrow, as of this writing) aren't expected to be a major leap forward or feature a major redesign. (Except for that ugly camera bump.) Sure, the company has had a string of successes, but none that feel as revolutionary as the iPhone did.
There's a reason for that. The iPhone changed everything. It was a revolutionary product. Most companies only get one. You might argue that Apple has had a few (the iMac, the MacBook Air, and the iPad aren't too shabby), but name me a company that has had more than one truly transformational product.
Tesla hasn't. Yes, its cars are revolutionary and Tesla proved that you could commercially build a fully electric car that people would actually buy. And they are incredibly cool cars with almost no real competitors at this point, but the company hasn't proved you can actually make money doing it.
Apple, on the other hand, makes money. A lot of money. And that's largely because of Tim Cook. Sure, it's had some flops, and even a few failures, but it can afford to take a few highly-calculated risks along the way. Because it makes money.
While I'd love, as much as anyone, for Apple to introduce something we never saw coming that completely changes a part of our life like the iMac or iPhone did, that won't happen just because it hires a new CEO. It won't happen trying to find the next Steve Jobs.
In reality, the next leader at Apple is more likely to be another Tim Cook. He or she won't be a product 'guy,' though it would be nice if she was really good at developing creative leaders. See, you can't recreate the kind of circumstances that bring together the creative genuis of Steve Jobs with the operational brainpower of Tim Cook. Instead, you figure out what the next chapter looks like, and build the team that gets you there.
By the way, Jobs wasn't just a product guy, he was a once-in-a-generation creative visionary who was singularly focused on how Apple could deliver an experience for its customers. Even when he was in 'exile' he was still developing the personal computer he thought people deserved. That same thread runs through every product Jobs touched.
Musk, on the other hand, isn't singularly focused on anything. He's building fantastic cars and rocket ships and artificial intelligence and hyperspeed mass transit and batteries and solar panels between breaking the internet with his tweets. And to be honest, while all of it is quite amazing, none of it is Apple.