Who's the best CEO Apple ever had? Most people would instantly point to the late Steve Jobs, the company's brilliant and high-profile co-founder. But current Apple CEO Tim Cook is actually a better CEO than Jobs ever was, according to Leander Kahney, who just published a new biography of Cook.
When Jobs resigned as Apple CEO shortly before his death in 2011, many Apple fans and industry observers predicted dire things for the company. Without Jobs in charge, it might sputter and die out or would stop being the industry's innovation leader.
The negative predictions did not come true, and Tim Cook is the reason they didn't, according to Kahney, who's spent much of his career covering Apple for Wired News and his popular blog site Cult of Mac, and has written multiple books about the company. In his latest book, Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level, Kahney argues that Cook deserves much more credit than he usually gets for Apple's incredible success. And, Kahney recently told GeekWire, Cook's very much superior as a CEO.
"Yes, he's a better CEO than Jobs," Kahney said, when asked to compare them. "Jobs was a terrible CEO. He succeeded in spite of himself. He succeeded because he hired people like Cook to help run the company."
Keep in mind that Jobs was not seen as a great business leader during Apple's early days. His talents as someone who could inspire and persuade an audience were unquestioned. So was his ability to think up as-yet-unseen products that customers really wanted. But his leadership of Apple was marked by uneven product successes and expensive experimentation until he was forced out of the company by then-CEO John Sculley and the board in 1985. His next venture was the computer company NeXT, which never created a successful product. A troubled Apple acquired NeXT in 1997, bringing Jobs back as CEO in the process.
It was only then, after he came back to lead the company he had created, that Jobs became the revered leader he's seen as today. In large part, that's because Apple had a spectacular turnaround under his leadership, introducing iconic new products and reaching new revenue heights.
"Jobs got all the credit."
Jobs hired Cook in 1998, the year after he returned to Apple, and Kahney says that Cook is partly responsible for Apple's successes since then. "Jobs got all the credit for that era, but Cook had a lot to do with it, building it up as a business," he told GeekWire. In particular, Cook, who's widely seen as an "operations guy," solved the problem of Apple's uneven supply, in part by having Foxconn assemble its products, a move that became controversial after news of overwork and suicides at Foxconn's factory came out.
Cook has done a lot more to prove himself, especially after Jobs's departure and death. Many outsiders predicted that Apple would never again produce an iconic product, but Cook proved them wrong, coming out with the Apple Watch, AirPods, and Siri, among others, and he's led Apple to new financial heights.
He also got an important issue very right, when he made preserving user privacy a principle at Apple, and a reason to choose Apple products over its competitors'. As Kahney put it, "I think with Tim Cook, the Apple brand is one you can trust. We're not going to spy on you. We're not going to sell your data." An ordinary mobile phone can become a mobile spying device, but "You can trust your iPhone. It's not going to betray you, and it's not going to spy on you."
That's a powerful value proposition, and it came about under Cook. He may not be as charismatic as Jobs was or as quotable. But he's absolutely the leader that Apple needs, and quite possibly the best it's ever had.