Apple Has Lost Its Soul. But Who Cares?
When Jobs died, the big question surrounding Cook was whether he could nurture a product as groundbreaking as the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad. In the 2010’s the company tried and failed to produce an autonomous electric car (an effort it has reportedly revived). But after a decade of Cook’s accomplishments becoming the stuff of CEO legend, holding him to that standard seems wrongheaded. His management of the iPhone franchise has been the envy of every tech company.
And Apple did have new products in that decade. Ive himself was the impetus for the aforementioned Apple Watch, even though his original focus on ultra-luxury was misguided. (Apple’s course-correction to emphasize the device’s fitness features proved a winning formula.) AirPods, another wearable, added one more beloved notch to Apple’s expanding belt. Even so, in the 2010’s Apple’s biggest new driver of revenue was its growing services business, effectively milking customers of its hardware to pay monthly fees for storage, music, news, and video. Mickle makes fun of Apple for its overblown entry into moviemaking and television production, but the last laugh seems to be Cook’s, whose company has won the first best-picture Oscar for a streaming company. And while Apple Music has gotten poor reviews, the company’s relentless distribution engine has made it a financial success.
Meanwhile, Ive was struggling for most of the decade. Though he led the Watch effort, a stint managing software design didn’t play to his talents. He wound up spending inordinate time nurturing Apple’s new headquarters, a stunning monument to Jobs but one that Apple’s customers don’t get to enjoy. Mickle also documents how a burned-out Ive became a distant figure in the company, sometimes showing up hours late for meetings. That’s a dramatic contrast to Cook, who runs his life like a perfectly functioning, just-in-time supply chain.
The stark juxtaposition makes for good reading. But the story of innovation at Apple in the 2010’s can’t be summarized by a Face/Off framing alone. It turns out that just as Jobs had a guy with an alternative spelling of “Johnny,” so does Cook. But his is not Jony Ive. It’s Johny Srouji, an under-the-radar engineer who leads the company’s chip development. That’s the most significant element of the company’s roadmap this decade—a transformation from a design-driven company to one centered on custom silicon. Because Apple has made its own innovative chips, it has not only managed to maintain its lead in phones and boost its Macintosh line, but the company is now in a position to deliver more powerful, and potentially more magical, products than its competitors.
When I asked Mickle why Srouji’s name doesn’t appear in After Steve, he insisted that I could find it in there. But when he tried to point me to the passage about Apple’s custom-silicon guru, he discovered that it had been cut from the book. Maybe Johny will come lately, in the second printing.
I did learn a lot about Cook and Ive in After Steve. But as this century of Big Tech barrels to its second quarter, we aren’t asking for soul from companies like Apple. We want quality, innovation, and trustworthiness. That’s a challenge for any company with billions of users. Even Mickle himself admitted to me that there was no way that Apple could have maintained its soul—whatever that is—at its current scale. “It had to shed the purity of its commitment as a consequence of the pressures it faces from Wall Street to continue to deliver growth,” he told me.