Book Review: Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level

Posted on April 2, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Apple with 22 Comments

That title is really the only eye-raising aspect of Leander Kahney’s latest book, which is a timely and much-needed look at the post-Jobs Apple.

And to be fair to Kahney, Cook has absolutely taken Apple to the next level despite his inability, thus far, to create another iPhone-level hit. Apple under Cook has emerged as one of the richest and best-run companies on earth, a customer-centric powerhouse that vexes critics as much as it delights fans. But Cook is correctly judged not just by his stewardship of the foundation laid by his predecessor, but also by the parts of Jobs’ empire that he’s dismantled. Today’s Apple is far more empathetic, charitable and, yes, open then before.

As a student of history, and of personal technology history specifically, I’ve long gravitated to industry books that focus on individual companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple as well as platform wars such as Windows vs. Mac, Android vs. iPhone, and various video game console generations. Some are worth reading again and again, and some are fascinating simply because they provide a cohesive take on a certain era or event.

Tim Cook at the very least falls into the latter category—we’ll need to see whether it stands the test of time—by offering what I believe is the first in-depth look at Cook’s Apple. The timing is a bit tough, to be sure: Apple Watch and its health-monitoring prowess is just starting to gain steam, and Apple just this past month launched a sweeping set of services that will or will not make up for a slowing iPhone business.

No, Mr. Cook didn’t speak to the author, nor did most of Apple’s senior leadership, at least not on the record. But we still get a lot of good—and, I think, new—information about crucial events of the past decade thanks to good reporting and the anonymous Apple executives and employees who did speak with the author.

For example, there’s a great passage about Cook’s decision to deny the FBI access to an iPhone that was used by a domestic terrorist, with Kahney reporting on Cook’s disappointment that the case never went to trial: He really wanted to make a public stand on what he saw as a crucial moral point.

I was just as interested in the in-fighting and politicking that led to executive Scott Forstall’s ouster by Mr. Cook. Forstall, a Jobs favorite and a presumed future Apple CEO, presided over the back-to-back failures of Siri and Apple Maps and then refused Cook’s demand for a public apology. So he was fired, and Cook’s Apple went on to publicly apology for a number of issues in the ensuing years, something that Jobs would never have done.

That shift, I think, is what most clearly marks Cook’s Apple and differentiates it from the previous regime. Where Steve Jobs would interrupt a vacation to stand on a stage and insist that the poorly-designed iPhone 4 was no worse than other smartphones when it came to interference—an outright lie—Mr. Cook correctly takes the blame when his Apple makes mistakes. Someone like Forstall, who built his career both emulating and toadying to Mr. Jobs, was never going to make it under Tim Cook. And it was interesting getting the perspective of other executives on Forstall’s departure.

Looked at more broadly, Kahney provides an excellent rundown of Tim Cook’s life, both before and during his tenure at Apple. And while I skimmed through the opening chapters about his childhood and times at IBM and Compaq, the bulk of the book focuses on Apple and, most crucially, the time since Steve Jobs’ passing. One of the final chapters, regarding Apple’s future, is interesting, though it seems like the firm’s autonomous car efforts have stalled and changed dramatically since their inception. But it is Kahney’s belief that Cook, despite following one of the most iconic leaders in Silicon Valley history, has somehow emerged as Apple’s best CEO that will trigger the most debate. Kahney argues that logistics, not products, matter most at a company like Apple. And if that’s true, sure, then Mr. Cook comes out on top.

“Steve Jobs was never really a CEO,” one source told Kahney, in a hard-hitting bit of history-rewriting, given how decisively Jobs led Apple away from bankruptcy and then engineered the most stunning comeback in corporate history. But there is some truth to the notion that, once Apple became enormously successful and distributed, it needed a different kind of leader. Someone less mercurial and touchy. Someone, well, like Tim Cook.

I’m not ready to concede that Cook is a genius in the Silicon Valley visionary or engineer sense, and I’m still uncomfortable with the notion that he is a better CEO than Steve Jobs. But he is a better human being, for sure. And he is the better CEO for today’s Apple. And if you’re interested in a great overview of Tim’s still-ongoing tenure at Apple, Leander Kahney’s latest book is exactly what you need.

Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level by Leander Kahney can now be preordered and will be available on April 16. I highly recommend it.

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Comments (22)

22 responses to “Book Review: Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level”

  1. dontbe evil

    "Book Review: Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level"


    bhuhauahuahuahauah... joke of the year...oh wait maybe by next level they mean: disaster?

  2. reefer2

    A skilled businessperson, absolutely, but not a product guy and that is why Apple is yesterdays news.

    • Stooks

      In reply to reefer2:

      Completely agree that they are yesterdays news. They have peaked IMHO. They will still make a moutain of money for at least another decade because of momentum. All that said they are just not leading in any way.


      Their main product the iPhone, has reached "Microwave" status. Meaning lots and lots and lots of people need and buy a Microwave but noboday probably knows the model or what they can do. This is smarphones in general but when the iPhone is what 60+% of your revenue that can't be good.

  3. MutualCore

    [email protected] I thought this was April Fools.

  4. robincapper

    Do "logistics, not products, matter" if the products don't drive demand? Not the case with current Apple (irrespective of the merits of the individual products) but longer term I think that is still their real problem.

  5. kevansizemore.com

    Considering the expectations of Apple promoters (and critics) for Tim Cook, I believe he has lead well thus far. While he may not have the same strengths (and flaws) as his predecessor, or other large technology company CEOs, he has preserved and in some respects strengthened things Apple does well.


    Paul: you mentioned you've "long gravitated to industry books that focus on individual companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple as well as platform wars such as Windows vs. Mac, Android vs. iPhone, and various video game console generations." I'm curious to know your top 10 suggestions in terms of books that are "worth reading again and again" and "fascinating simply because they provide a cohesive take on a certain era or event."


    Thanks!

  6. MikeGalos

    Tim Cook is "the better CEO for today's Apple" because today's Apple is based on what Tim Cook is good at - supply chain management and negotiating contracts with suppliers. What they're not good at is what Tim Cook is not good at, new product designs, marketing those products, keeping the fans evangelizing the products even when the products have disastrous flaws.

  7. shameermulji

    "And to be fair to Kahney, Cook has absolutely taken Apple to the next level despite his inability, thus far, to create another iPhone-level hit."


    Unless Apple, or any other tech giant, comes out with a product that consumers need as much as an iPhone / smartphone, there will never be another hit on the scale of the smartphone.

  8. Stooks

    He does know business especially logistics but as leader of a device company (for the most part) he is lacking when compared to Steve Jobs, especially on stage.


    Nicer yes, but way too much into the social aspects of people lives when it comes to the causes he champions. I don't get my social views/values from a smartphone maker.


    The priviacy stance Apple takes is PURE marketing and business 101. They are a hardware device maker with some "meh" services. They do not need your data to sell in the form of ads. They need your data to sell you more hardware so they play up the "privacy" stance to the point of it being overplayed IMHO.


    Their latest event was the worst yet. I have ZERO interest in anything they talked about and I own a lot of Apple products....a lot.

  9. bellbm

    Paul, since you mentioned the type of technology industry books that you prefer, I'd be really interested in hearing about some of them. I imagine that you've read about the industry more prolifically than I have, but there are a few industry books that I've enjoyed immensely: In the Plex, Showstopper, and Masters of Doom.

  10. bart

    A good CEO for a company is hard to define. If Tim Cook would have been at Apple at the time when Steve Jobs was there, this company might not have even existed by now. A company goes through different cycles as it starts/grows/matures. And the grow/mature-cycle often repeats itself.


    Steve Jobs was a visionary. Created products at the time when Apple was in desperate need of innovative products. Steve Jobs was the right man at the time.

    Just as Tim Cook is the right man at the moment. Continuation/consolidation of a company which has a lot of successful products. But Time Cook can't be seen as a visionary. He is a man that 'tweaks' products/services that Apple has. Problem is, such a company often turns 'blant'.

    No doubt the grow cycle will follow again when Apple gets another 'Steve Jobs' type person at the helm. Someone that brings true innovation to Apple. Tim Cook is too much of a 'follow-the- industry-type' person.


    Anyway, the board of directors have a super important role to fulfill here and hopefully put Tim Cook aside when the time comes. If not, Apple will turn into.... 'an IBM'

  11. Greg Green

    "logistics, not products, matter most at a company like Apple."


    Sounds like they're putting the cart ahead of the horse. While inattention to logistics can ruin a product or a company, without product (or services) there's no need for logistics.

    • Jason Peter

      In reply to Greg Green:


      Both were, and are, an equal priority at Apple. Both were key to Apples successful turnaround after ’97.


      Apple had sh*t products before that time. Almost all were akin to an average Packard Bell product catalog. Uninspiring. Boring. And most of all, a huge mess. This was the kind of problem that Steve Jobs excelled at tackling.


      However, Apples logistical processes and management were also an incredible mess that had been killing the company for years. One huge problem that Apple faced was an immense backlog in parts and materials sitting in warehouses, quickly losing value and bleeding vast amounts of money, as well as being quickly bled to death by a death of a thousand wasteful inefficiencies. Once that money is lost, it can’t be recovered.


      According to Jobs, he tried to cut away such inefficiencies with a machete. He stated that he was able to bring parts management down to a more manageable standard month-long inventory life. But he credits Cook with bringing that time-line to a much more efficient week or even mere days, as well as bringing about many money snd time saving efficiencies that were essential to allowing Apple to lower its operating costs immensely. Cook also deserves much credit for managing Apples skyrocketing success in profits and stock market value during the 2008-2011 period when Jobs was forced to step back and deal with his illness and focus on products. His attention was focused elsewhere, and Cook was there to not only pick up the slack, but also implement further management efficiencies that were essential to bringing about Apples further successes at the time as well as the future.


      Cook deserves every bit as much credit for Apples rise to success as Jobs does. While Steve Jobs was inarguably a much better tech visionary, product guy, and showman on the stage, Cook was equally masterful at managing the equally important background logistical processes that were at the time a virtual nightmare for most other tech companies at the time.


      Cook inarguably lacks Steve Jobs' ability to dream up “groovy” products and motivate/drive product teams to push their limits. He lacks Steve Jobs’ ability to dream up inspiring and controversial keynotes to rev up the excitement factor to fever pitches. But these in and of themselves do not make him a failure as a CEO. Like him or hate him, Steve Jobs was a one-of-a-kind CEO that few could even come close to emulating. Any replacement would have undoubtably failed in a similar manner, and arguably would have done worse than Cook.


      Cook has to live under the constant - and arguably incorrect - shadow of “Steve wouldn’t have messed up like that”. Yes, Apple has faced a number of high-profile mistakes recently. MacBook keyboards, Mac Pro stagnation, Air Power, etc. But how soon we forget the numerous embarrassing mistakes that occurred under Jobs management as well. The hockey-puck mouse. The embarrassing Apple III. The G4 Cube. The Motorola ROKR. MobileMe. The iPod HiFi. Antennagate. Ping. The list goes on.


      Point being, Jobs was every bit a failure as he was successful. He was just better at embracing and manipulating the public perception of such mistakes to his advantage. He was arguably the best to be the face, showman, mascot if you will at Apple. But IMO, Cook was the man behind the curtain who made Apple run like the well-oiled machine that was the envy of every other tech company in the world. Without him, the possibility is great that Apple could have very well died before it had a chance to recover in the 90’s-early 2000’s. Something he rarely gets credit for.





      • Greg Green

        In reply to Jason_P:

        I just read an old interview with Ive and he said in informal talks betwen Ive and Jobs, Jobs would often come up with bad ideas.


        But it reminds me of what Jim Hall said of his business partner and team mate Hap Sharp: He comes up with an idea a minute. Now 9 out of 10 of those ideas are bad, but who do you know that can come up with a good idea every ten minutes?


        Cook isn't that guy. As Stooks says, maybe Apple has reached Microwave status.

  12. mrlinux11

    I am not sure he has taken it up a level. Under Jobs the Mac keyboard issue would not have taken more than 3 generations to resolve.

    I also think Jobs would have done a much better job of promoting their new products

    • Stooks

      In reply to mrlinux11:

      He also would have never had so many offerings in a product line. How many iPad and iPhone models do they sell now?


      The Mac Pro or the lack of a new model since 2013, even after they went out of their way to say a new one was coming.....over a year ago is an embarrasment and I know it has cost them many "professionals" that have moved off of the Mac and over to Windows. Maybe they do not care because they see the data and know it is not really a money maker, but they need to say one way or another.

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