The Tim Cook Legacy

Tim Cook's message to customers last week regarding iPhone security will mark a defining moment for his legacy as Apple CEO. While the legal and technological ramifications resulting from the San Bernardino iPhone case will take months and years to play themselves out, the business implications are already visible. One of the major questions facing Apple in the post-Steve Jobs era was how the company would be managed in such a way as to maintain its unique culture while keeping the product front and center. By remaining true to his promise regarding security and privacy, Tim Cook continues to build his legacy of strengthening the Apple experience by embracing principles and values that transcend hardware and software. 

The Apple Experience

There have been a handful of events since 2011 that have served as key milestones in Cook's tenure as CEO. The Apple Maps debacle, Apple Retail turmoil, Apple supply chain working conditions, environmental activism, and data privacy and security, have each played a role in laying the groundwork for Tim Cook's legacy. With Jony Ive focused on Apple's product vision, Tim Cook has been playing to his strengths dedicating much of his attention to nurturing the Apple experience by focusing on six values: security and privacy, trust, equality and ethics, and environmental responsibility. The following diagram highlights how Jony Ive's product vision is combined with Cook's value-oriented focus to create the Apple experience.   

For each of these six values, there have been specific events where Cook's actions demonstrated his leadership style and vision.

Security and Privacy

Tim Cook's long-standing stance on security and privacy were thrown into the public circle last week with the U.S. Department of Justice getting a federal judge to order Apple help them break into an iPhone involved in the San Bernardino terror case. Cook's hard-line stance against such an order should not have come as a surprise. Since becoming CEO, Cook has embarked on an unwavering campaign to regard security and privacy as human rights. This position is not just different from other technology companies, but is downright remarkable given the amount of risk Cook is willing to take on by believing so firmly in those stances. 

Last year, Cook gave a speech at the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Champions of Freedom event where he came down harshly on companies monetizing user data and not doing enough to educate customers as to how their personal information is being used. While some thought Cook was being a hypocrite by not recognizing what is seemingly the contradiction found with Apple's future and greater data collection, Cook's message regarding privacy was focused on the customer. The number one priority is to let the customer know what data is being collected and how it is being used. Apple knew that type of practice is simply not found in Silicon Valley, and Cook was determined to keep Apple on a different course.

Another incident highlighting Cook's passion regarding security and privacy was on display when he sat down with Charlie Rose following the iPhone 6 launch (and a few weeks after the iCloud celebrity hacking incident). When referring to rumors that Apple had created a backdoor to its servers, Tim Cook exclaimed to Rose, "they would have to cart us out in a box" before Apple created a backdoor. The message was clear. Apple was going to fight for its users and would be willing to go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court (which now seems quite likely).


Another key attribute to Tim Cook's legacy has been trust. Over the years, two events have come to demonstrate Cook's intense belief that customer trust is one of the most important values behind the Apple experience: the Apple Maps debacle and Apple Retail turmoil.

In 2012, following the botched Apple Maps launch which saw a mapping service in rough shape in terms of accuracy and usefulness, Tim Cook took it upon himself to issue an apology to Apple customers. The first and last paragraphs of the apology letter highlighted Cook's underlining motivation:

"To our customers,

At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers. With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better... 

Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard."

It has been reported that Scott Forstall, who oversaw iOS software and Apple Maps, was fired due to his refusal to officially apologize for an inferior Apple Maps product. From Cook's perspective, Forstall's actions posed a threat to the Apple experience with trust at the heart of the issue. Apple had spent years building goodwill with customers with the end result being hundreds of millions of users trusting Apple that its products would lead to a top-notch experience. With Apple Maps, Forstall put this Apple experience at risk, and Cook took decisive action. This intense focus on the Apple experience soon became Tim Cook's primary motive in everything he has since done leading Apple. 

Cook's focus on nurturing customer trust was also seen in his handling of Apple Retail. After Ron Johnson left as head of Apple Retail in 2011, Apple's retail operations entered a tumultuous period. The iconic stores were still seeing incredible levels of traffic and sales per square foot, but the customer experience was deteriorating. Cook ended up making one of his biggest blunders to date by hiring John Browett to take over Apple Retail. Instead of focusing on the experience produced by the Apple Retail stores, Browett looked at physical Apple Retail locations as profit centers.

After being on the job for just 10 months, Cook fired Browett. Along with the Apple Maps fiasco, Browett's quick dismissal showed that Cook was comfortable admitting mistakes and taking swift action to correct those mistakes. More importantly, Cook learned from those mistakes. A year later, Angela Ahrendts was brought on board to lead Apple Retail. Her success at Burberry was a result of taking the luxury retail playbook and ripping it up by embracing technology. Ahrendts placed the experience above all else. In fact, Ahrendts has publicly mentioned she doesn't consider herself "a great retailer" but instead someone who understands people and the importance of building the right kind of retail team. This caught Cook's attention. He knew that Apple Retail stores were a great tool to build customer trust in terms of the personal touch that Apple Retail employees provide such as sales support, service and workshops. 

Equality and Ethics

In 2012, The New York Times published its "The iEconomy" series, which took a closer look at the negatives associated with globalization. Apple's supply chain was thrown into the spotlight. Apple's reliance on its supply chain was illustrated through descriptions and tales of unacceptable working conditions. It has been reported that Cook thought The New York Times investigative series was not accurate and very misleading. Instead of being content with the progress Apple had already been making with its supply chain, the iEconomy series seemed to reenergize Cook. He was on a mission to place Apple as the champion of human rights that went well beyond what other companies were doing.  He wanted Apple to be the undisputed leader.

Cook placed Jeff Williams as the executive monitoring third-party contract manufacturer and supplier working conditions. While there is still much progress to be made, Cook's focus on human rights issues once again relates back to the Apple experience. There is a story behind every Apple product, including how it is made, and Cook understood that the Apple experience began all the way back with the raw materials at factories and mines.

In addition, Cook has pushed for equality in other parts of daily life, becoming much more vocal in current political affairs by using Apple's power and standing to extend his reach. While it may be hard to find the direct relationship between these actions and Apple products, Tim Cook's motivation is clear: Apple is a company that stands for everyone. 

Environmental Responsibility

Apple's aggressive stance on green initiatives has been well chronicled in the press, but the motivation behind the actions are still being underestimated. Whether it was creating working forests in Maine and North Carolina, or building extensive solar projects in China, Cook has embarked Apple on a mission to minimize its impact on the environment. Cook hired Lisa Jackson, former Environmental Protection Agency chief, in 2013 to oversee Apple's environmental practices. It's not that this focus on being environmentally-focused started with Cook's imagination, especially since we can look back at how Apple embarked on more environmental friendly decisions in its product lineup under Steve Jobs. However, Cook felt that Apple's leadership status in the global economy placed it in an unique position to serve as an example for others. 

The Product

Apple's mission is to create products that people love. When judging Tim Cook's performance, the mistake many people have been making is analyzing the Apple CEO position as a seat that has to be filled with a product visionary like Steve Jobs. Not only is this faulty logic, but it fails to comprehend Cook's strengths. Tim Cook is Apple's CEO because he is not a product visionary.

Apple's current success was not due to Steve Jobs carrying the company on his shoulders. Thanks to Apple's revamped public relations strategy, we have gotten a better look at how the Apple machine actually operates. There is much more going on behind the scenes than a dictator not allowing debate, disagreement, discussion and collaboration.

Even though Cook is not a product person, this fact does not take anything away from Apple or his legacy since Jony Ive is purveyor of Apple's product mission. In fact, evidence would suggest Jony Ive has actually been the purveyor of Apple's product philosophy for over 15 years. Cook is confident that the executive team he has assembled will promote debate and discussion, just like in the past, leading to products that people love. Meanwhile, Cook dedicates his time and energy to overseeing the management team responsible for this debate and discussion while strengthening the Apple experience by looking at values that go beyond the tangible product. 

A Defining Moment

Tim Cook's message to customers last week regarding iPhone security will go down as one of the defining moments of his tenure as CEO because it perfectly encapsulated Cook's motivation as CEO. According to Cook, the best way to keep Apple's mission statement focused on the product is to embrace and strengthen ideals that strengthen the relationship with customers.

One paragraph from Cook's letter stood out: "While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

Cook's letter wasn't just about an iPhone 5c or encryption. Instead, Cook took a stand protecting the very same ideals that the U.S. government is tasked to protect. Apple is known as the iPhone company today but could very well be known as a personal transportation business in 20 years. Despite this changing product mix, Cook knows the ideals he is focused on promoting within Apple's culture will remain unchanged. The Tim Cook legacy will one day be remembered as the era in which these ideals were established and engrained into the Apple experience. Even though the product will always be at the center of it all, hardware and software can only go so far in advancing humanity. 

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