Tim Cook's first 5 years: Apple's CEO on failure and why he still believes in surprises

From Steve Jobs to the Apple car, Cook looked back at Apple's past and looked ahead to its future in a wide-ranging interview.

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Credit: Apple

We hear from Apple CEO Tim Cook during the company’s quarterly earnings calls, but lately the leader of Apple has been opening up in ways that non-analysts can understand. First he sat down with Fast Company, and on Monday an in-depth Washington Post interview on Cook’s 5-year anniversary as CEO offered more insight into the company’s past failures and future surprises.

A lot has changed in the last five years, Cook told the Post. Steve Jobs passed away just six weeks after Cook took the reins, which came as a shock, he said. Apple expanded its product lineup after Jobs’s death, and some of those devices were conceived of and developed entirely without Jobs’s input. Apple just sold its 1 billionth iPhone, even as analysts and investors fret over the smartphone’s declining revenue. There are bigger changes in store, Cook said, though he played coy as usual.

“We have stepped up our social responsibility,” Cook said. “We have talked about things and been more transparent about what we’re doing—not on products: We try to be as secretive as we’ve always been on products, although it’s increasingly difficult to do that.”

The 10,000-word interview is worth a read, especially if you’re interested in the intricacies of Apple’s tax arrangements. Here are the highlights:

On Steve Jobs

According to the Post, Cook’s voice still softens when he speaks of his friend.

“To me, Steve’s not replaceable. By anyone,” Cook said. “He was an original of a species. I never viewed that was my role. I think it would have been a treacherous thing if I would have tried to do it. When I first took the job as CEO, I actually thought that Steve would be here for a long time…I know this sounds probably bizarre at this point, but I had convinced myself that he would bounce, because he always did.”

On the FBI showdown

Apple iPhone 5C (3) Martyn Williams

Apple was just as shocked as the rest of us when the FBI asked the company to unlock an iPhone belonging to suspected domestic terrorist Syed Farook.

The FBI eventually found another way in using a tactic they didn’t disclose to Apple, as far as we know. Cook maintains that the company acted in the best interests of its customers.

“Customers should have an expectation that they shouldn’t need a PhD in computer science to protect themselves. So I think they depend on us to do some things on their behalf. So with that responsibility comes an obligation to stand up,” Cook said. “Honestly? I was shocked that they would even ask for this. That was the thing that was so disappointing that I think everybody lost in the whole thing. There are 200-plus other countries in the world. Zero of them had ever asked this.”

On failure

Cook has overseen five years of stratospheric growth at Apple, but he also takes credit for missteps during that time.

Apple Maps was a big one. The second was hiring John Browett to lead retail in 2012, a mistake that Cook quickly rectified by bringing on Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts the following year.

“It’s sort of a lonely job,” Cook said. “The adage that it’s lonely—the CEO job is lonely —is accurate in a lot of ways. I’m not looking for any sympathy. You have to recognize that you have blind spots. We all do. Blind spots move, and you want to not just have really bright people around you, but people who will push on you and people to bring out the best in you.”

On Apple’s future…and that car

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Apple has taken a lot of heat this year because of declining iPhone sales. The company doesn’t break out Apple Watch sales in its earnings reports, but Apple’s “most personal device ever” hasn’t been the blockbuster product that some apparently expected it to be. But none of that bothers Cook.

“Every year isn’t an up, you know,” Cook said. “I’ve heard all of it before. And I don’t subscribe to it because it’s traditional thinking in a lot of ways: You can’t get large because you are large.”

Obviously Apple can’t hinge its future on the iPhone, though Cook believes eventually every person in the world will own a smartphone and Apple could capture a huge share of that market. He pointed to services, the iPad Pro, and enterprise as areas of growth that Apple is optimistic about. Then there’s that long-rumored self-driving car, which Cook refused to comment on, but vagely circled.

“Apple is the only company that can take hardware, software and services and integrate those into an experience that’s an ‘aha’ for the customer,” Cook said. “You can take that and apply to markets that we’re not in today. There’s not a limitation that we can only do that in the smartphone area or in the tablet or Mac or watch area.”

Opening Siri up to third-party developers is a huge leap forward, and Cook hinted that more artificial intelligence work is happening in the background. Augmented and virtual reality are also areas of interest.

But if you expected the CEO of Apple to say anything substantial about unreleased products…well, you just don’t know Apple.

“We’ve always viewed that people love surprises,” Cook said. “We don’t have enough anymore in our lives.”

This story, "Tim Cook's first 5 years: Apple's CEO on failure and why he still believes in surprises" was originally published by Macworld.

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