Cook is Selznick, not Hitchcock
When Scott Forstall was fired from Apple in late October 2012, John Gruber remarked on Apple’s straightforward communication style:
One of the things I admire about Apple is their plainspokenness, both in advertising and in press releases. […] At first glance, the headline of the press release announcing Forstall’s departure seemed to go against this: “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services”. That was followed by a subhead: “Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi Add Responsibilities to Their Roles”.
Thinking about it some more, though, and considering what I know about Forstall’s reputation within the company, I think that headline, euphemistic though it is, tells the plain truth: Forstall was an obstacle to collaboration within the company.
Later that week, on Hypercritical 92, John Siracusa noted:
Cook’s record so far: he hired the wrong guy for retail and had to fire him, and he did not manage his current crop of executives — who he apparently loves — well enough because, you know, they bailed on him!
Alright, so here, finally, I think with this reshuffle announcement is the beginning of the real Tim Cook era.
The passing of WWDC22 marks nearly 11 years of Cook at the helm of Apple and nearly 10 years of the “Tim Cook Era” — both longer than Jobs’ first stretch at Apple from 1976-1985 (9 years), and just under Jobs’ second stretch at Apple from 1997-2011 (14 years). With a decade of the Tim Cook Era approaching, let’s take a look at Tim’s tenure thus far.
Tim Cook: Auteur?
Gruber has long argued that filmmaking is an apt metaphor for any collaborative creative endeavor, including Apple’s approach to business. Through this lens, Steve Jobs was the Apple auteur — the man with both the vision and the taste that earned him the privilege of final cut over the products the company shipped.
As such, the central questions I ask of a retrospective on the Tim Cook Era are: Is Tim Cook the new Apple auteur? And does he need to be?
Auteur Theory, A Summary
It would be both impossible and foolish of me to attempt to encapsulate the nuances of a hotly debated form of film critique in a piece ostensibly about Apple, but a brief overview of auteur theory is in order. Simply put, auteur theory claims that a director’s taste can have the greatest influence over the final product of a film; that the director is like the author of a film.
Gruber offers a corollary to this claim: authority is a sine qua non for auteurs1. (Without final cut, how can a director claim the greatest influence over a film?) What follows is Gruber’s thesis about auteur theory, in general:
The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever
is in chargehas final cut.
We will adopt this framework in an assessment of the Tim Cook Era￼.
In short, a great auteur2:
- Wields final cut over a product, and
- Has great taste.
Steve Jobs was, unquestionably, a great auteur:
- He wielded both formal and informal authority at Apple, building a company shaped in his image, and
- His taste is what makes Apple products Apple products.
It’s not revolutionary for me to say that the quality and success of Apple itself was largely the result of Jobs’ vision for the future of computing: Apple was successful because they had incredible products, and Apple had incredible products because Jobs had the authority and the taste to make them great. We experience Steve’s taste in the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, but what do we experience as a result of the Tim Cook Era?
Tim Cook: A Retrospective
Steve shaped Apple’s corporate structure around the fact that he was a product person: by placing himself at the center of the company, every decision about Apple products ultimately flowed through him. This is the essence of Jobs as an auteur. But when Apple had to get serious about a succession plan, Cook — in this way, the opposite of Jobs — was the only viable option.
From Tripp Mickle’s goldmine of a book, After Steve:
There wasn’t a true challenger. Three of Apple’s most talented engineers, software developer Avie Tevanian and hardware executives Jon Rubinstein and Tony Fadell, had already left the company. Rising software star Scott Forstall was considered too young, hardware leader Bob Mansfield was regarded as too narrowly focused, and product marketer Phil Schiller was thought of as too divisive. Jony Ive was better at managing a small team than worrying about Apple’s sprawling business. Retail chief Ron Johnson had the marketing and operational skills required but hadn’t been exposed to many other areas of Apple’s business. “He didn’t have a choice,” said one of Jobs’s former advisers. “No one else could have taken that job. At least fifty percent of Apple’s value was the supply chain.” […] The selection surprised some outsiders because — as Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson — Cook wasn’t a “product person.”
In other words, Cook is a great leader but isn’t a product visionary. If Jobs structured Apple to keep a product person at its center and grant them final cut, Cook’s Apple would suddenly supplant the creative mastermind at the center of the org chart with an operational mastermind, pulling the beating heart out from the center of the company structure and replacing it with something more akin to the brain.
When Tim took over, Steve had a characteristic quip (emphasis mine):
Jobs said he had studied what had happened at the Walt Disney Company and how it had been paralyzed after its cofounder Walt Disney had died. Everyone had asked: What would Walt do? What decision would he make?
“Never do that,” Jobs said. “Just do what’s right.” — Tripp Mickle, After Steve
Cryptic, curt, and concise (yet consistent), Steve’s message to Tim was both discerning and well-received: Tim knew he wasn’t a product person, a reality that burdened him with the task of remaking Apple in his operational image, the same way Steve had done in his creative one. To avoid treading water, á la Disney, the Tim Cook Era would have to be characterized by an Apple where the CEO was no longer the product auteur. Instead, Cook delegated creativity to the creatives while steadying Apple at an inflection point in the company’s growth: Cook’s first move was, in many ways, preordained by circumstance. Before he could fit Apple around the brain (and avoid losing the heart), his first job as CEO was to keep the successes of Steve’s Apple — at the top of its game – humming along. Only then could he truly shed the dogma.
From Asymco’s Horace Dediu in “Wherefore art thou Macintosh?” (annotation mine):
I’ll let you be the judge of whether Cook’s management was successful in the interim period between taking the reins and the start of the Tim Cook Era.
Extending the metaphor
So, is Tim Cook the new Apple auteur? An unsurprising conclusion: no. Steve knew it. Tim knows it. Hell, we all knew it, long before the Tim Cook Era began. Cook is not an auteur, but that doesn’t mean that Cook is a bad CEO, that Apple is doomed, or even that Apple has lost its soul. After all, not every creative enterprise is the same.
Diving deeper: as part of restructuring Apple, Cook has continually made decisions outside the realm of the final product. He’s brought operations closer to the center of the concentric circles that make up Apple’s corporate structure – all to ensure the now colossal company can continue to create, as Cook would say, “great products”.
So, if Cook is putting people in the right places to keep launching great products, what does that make him in Gruber’s conception of Apple as film production? My conjecture: Tim Cook is Apple’s executive producer.
Great films can be the singular product of a visionary auteur…but not every great film has to be. At the very least, successful films can be more the product of a studio than of a director.
|Worldwide Gross (in 2020 $)
|Gone with the Wind
|The Sound of Music
|E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
|The Ten Commandments
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens
[Highest-grossing films adjusted for inflation (via Wikipedia)]
In the list of the highest-grossing films of all time, there are various levels of auteur cinema, from the completely corporate, sickly saccharine, assembly-line candy in Avengers: Endgame to something certainly more auteur, like the original Star Wars. (In our framework, who has exercised more authority over final cut than George Lucas?) By nature of these movies being among the highest-grossing films of all time, they are definitionally successful. Are they great art? Some certainly are, but only you can make that judgement, depending on how expansive your definition of “art” is.
Now, at the top of the list, since 1939, lies what could be considered the ultimate example of a successful film that was the product of a producer, instead of a director. Gone with the Wind was both a commercial success and a critical darling, winning eight3 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. It is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. Victor Fleming directed the film, but he was not the only director involved: Selznick fired original director George Cukor and replaced him with Fleming, who was then replaced by Sam Wood for a brief period when Fleming fell ill. The point is that this film was a massive undertaking by a studio that had multiple cooks in the kitchen – all ultimately deferent to Selznick, the producer.
A successful film does not necessarily have to be the product of a single visionary auteur. A studio can produce a popular film, so long as all the pieces come together in the right way.
Tim Cook is Selznick, not Hitchcock. After all, who is better at bringing pieces together than Tim Cook?
Certainly, putting the pieces together is an art of its own. Remember how “at least fifty percent of Apple’s value was the supply chain”? If you don’t consider Cook’s work, at the very least, impressive, then this essay is probably not for you.4 But if you’re with me here, I hope my conjecture can now be taken as an assertion: Tim Cook is Apple’s producer.
As such, here’s the bottom line: At this point in Apple’s maturity, it needs a producer as its CEO because producers are the only ones that can enable the auteurs to achieve the scale5 of success Apple’s products will need in the future. Apple’s not the scrappy kid it used to be.
Selznick, Gone with the Wind’s producer, is among the most successful movers and shakers in Hollywood history, but that doesn’t mean that he was an artist, or that his movies were necessarily great art. Industrialized film production is such a rich metaphor for Apple’s work because both are businesses that work to create successful and artistic products. Gone with the Wind was a hugely successful product. There was artistry in creating it. But, again, it isn’t necessarily great art:
You will leave it, not with the feeling you have undergone a profound emotional experience, but with the warm and grateful remembrance of an interesting story beautifully told. Is it the greatest motion picture ever made? Probably not, although it is the greatest motion mural we have seen and the most ambitious film-making venture in Hollywood’s spectacular history. — Frank Nugent, NYT Review of Gone with the Wind
Herein lies the problem with great production alone: it can compose great artistry, but it rarely results in great art. As Gruber put it in his talk about auteur theory, sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. A producer’s work is to get the parts in place; an auteur’s work is to assemble the parts into something more. A great auteur that can transform a smattering of pieces into a whole, whose gestalt brings an intangible meta-art into being. This is not to imply that great producers cannot make beautiful things, or that great producers cannot make successful things; rather, a great producer consistently embarks on ambitious things and makes them happen. Whether they are great art or not depends on something beyond the producer’s direct control. It often depends on the auteur they place at the center of the creative endeavor.
Great producers take on ambitious projects, so let’s fully size up Tim Cook. If the ultimate expression of auteur Apple was the Mac, iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad — all products that centered the art of Apple — then the ultimate expression of producer Apple has been, and will continue to be, the products that centered the ambition of Apple6:
- Apple Watch: A transitional device, post-Jobs, aimed at taking on the watch/fashion industry. ($73 billion+ market size)
- Apple TV+ (Not to mention Apple’s other service plays!): Apple’s attempt at cracking the TV & movie industries. ($200 billion+ market size)
- Project Titan: Apple’s attempt at leaving the car industry in the dust. ($104 billion market size)
- AR/VR Headset: An ambitious, bleeding-edge project taking on — you guessed it — the rest of the tech industry. (The metaverse is a $1 trillion market opportunity, I guess)
I’d call that ambitious.
The Cook Doctrine
One year and twenty-four days passed between Steve’s death and Forstall’s ousting, where both Gruber’s and Siracusa’s words rang utterly true: Apple’s press release marked the beginning of the Tim Cook Era because it announced the removal of Forstall and the end of the Jobs 2.0 Era.
But focusing on Forstall can be followed to a fault. The other side of the coin, which Gruber highlighted, was that Cook cut Forstall to serve a larger purpose: to “increase collaboration” (emphasis mine):
Insiders understood the choice [to make Cook CEO]. Cook ran a division devoid of drama and focused on collaboration. Apple needed a new operating style after losing someone irreplaceable. — Tripp Mickle, After Steve
This, I argue, is Cook’s most consistent and distinctive message as a leader at Apple, and I think it is what will define his time as Apple’s CEO. For example, in 2009, even before he was CEO, Cook gave an impassioned speech to Wall Street analysts, which would be dubbed “The Cook Doctrine”:
There is extraordinary breadth and depth and tenure among the Apple executive team. We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups which allows us to innovate in a way that others cannot. We have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.
The Cook Doctrine outlines the broad lessons Apple has learned, from a focus on “great products” to “control [of] the primary technologies” critical to those products. But it also outlines the lessons Tim Cook has learned, including the importance of “deep collaboration and cross-pollination” among the talented groups at Apple.7
Even Jony Ive’s departure tracks the collaboration narrative. When he was promoted to Chief Design Officer in 2015, he was burned out from playing Jobs’ role in product development — the auteur — for the Apple Watch, and wanted to leave the company:
Compounding his frustration about it all was a feeling that he had shouldered many of those responsibilities alone. Jobs had visited the studio almost daily and supported the designers’ work, giving them direction and urging them onward. Cook, on the other hand, seldom came by, and when he did, it was only briefly.
In a few years, Ive had gone from being Jobs’s favored disciple to being one of many leaders in Cook’s egalitarian world. He decided that he wanted out. — Tripp Mickle, After Steve
More on Ive’s decision, as a product of Cook’s collaborative world:
Ive stood before them, brooding and distant. Ive could feel his creative spirit dimming. Behind the scenes, he had spent much of the past three years engaged in corporate conflict. He had tussled over whether to develop a watch with former software chief Scott Forstall. He had then battled over which of its features to promote with chief marketer Phil Schiller. Concurrently, he had confronted rising concerns about costs as he selected construction materials for Apple Park. And he had been sapped by the additional responsibility of managing dozens of software designers. He navigated it all without the support and collaboration of Jobs, the creative partner whom he hadn’t fully mourned. The entirety of it left him feeling exhausted and lonely. — Tripp Mickle, After Steve
Cook’s insistence on Ive interfacing outside his insular industrial design team — his insistence on collaborating consistently — was enough to push Ive out of the company. Even when Cook feared that he would be seen as the CEO who let the best industrial designer in the world go, collaboration won. First Forstall, then Ive. Those who won’t collaborate won’t survive in Cook’s Apple.
Jobs would have never let this happen.
If collaboration is so important to the Tim Cook Era that it’s forced two of Jobs’ closest thought partners out of the company, has it been worth it? Lest we downplay Cook’s track record, it’s time to observe the results of a collaborative Apple.
Here are the Apple products that have been released in the Tim Cook Era thus far:
- Services (iCloud+, Apple Music, Arcade, Card, TV+, Fitness+, News+)
- Apple Watch & AirPods
This list is reductive to emphasize a point: Cook has skillfully scaled Apple on the back of Jobs’ visionary products, but hasn’t successfully had his iPhone moment. In fact, Cook’s resumé reveals just how integral the iPhone is to Apple: services are mostly an iPhone accessory, as are the Apple Watch and AirPods. Moreover, AirPods were a direct result of Ive’s work on the watch, and the watch was supposed to liberate us from our phones, something that seems exceedingly unlikely.
Perhaps it’s unfair to measure against the iPhone, but if Apple’s goal is to be as successful at industry disruption as it’s been in the past, why would we use any other measuring stick? If collaboration is leading to better financial results while product innovation lags, shouldn’t that be a concern for Apple? Apple was “the Mac company” as a result of the Jobs 1.0 era, “the iPod (and Mac) company” at the beginning of the Jobs 2.0 era, and “the iPhone company” by the end of the Jobs 2.0 era. Here’s the thing: ten years into the Tim Cook era, Apple is still the iPhone company. In many ways, Cook has only solidified that fact: in Horace Dediu’s 2007-2016 revenue chart, the iPhone literally(!) buries the Mac, kills the iPod, and pumps up Apple’s services revenue, all trends that have continued under Cook’s leadership.
The generous read, in this case, is that Apple has no reason to disrupt the iPhone…it’s incomprehensibly successful! On this point, agreed: a lack of disruption would seamlessly track with Cook’s focus on collaboration. The problem is, historically, Apple’s heads-down attitude toward innovation is what placed them at the forefront of the industry. Disruption — including self-disruption — is a proven playbook. Apple isn’t afraid to kill its own products if consumers are buying another Apple product in its place.
As far as collaboration goes: so far, so bad.8
Ambition, meet Collaboration
In some ways, Cook’s focus on collaboration has been at the expense of Apple’s ability to release products with an auteur quality. But as I noted before, to look only at the surface level of the products Apple has released so far is to be reductive. The whole point of this investigation has been that Cook is a different kind of leader than Jobs was, something that was ordained by Jobs himself. As our investigation winds down, we’ll finally look under the covers and determine just how deep Cook’s unique style runs, and what that means for the future of Apple’s products.
We’ll first address the points made before about Tim Cook Era products:
- Yes, Apple has failed to disrupt the iPhone, but Tim Cook’s ambitions are much greater than product cannibalism. We’ve seen one major result of that ambition in the Apple Watch, but it was inherently compromised as far as collaboration goes because it was Ive’s pet project. Sure, if the watch was meant to provide some level of disruption to the iPhone, it has failed to achieve that goal. But was the Jobs 1.0 Era a failure because Apple’s breakout product – the Mac — wasn’t an enormous commercial success?
- Yes, historically, Apple has mercilessly cannibalized older product lines in favor of the new. Again, I could point to ambition here, but I will also note that the historical playbook is not the only one. Sometimes a player comes along and is great in a way that no one has been in the past. Tim Cook could be that player.
Collaboration alone, then, has had a mixed track record; I would call it a wash after our analysis. But what can we make of Cook’s ambition, as a producer, when we see them through the lens of collaboration, a Cook Doctrine tenet?
We’ll begin with a new approach to our previous critiques of the Apple Watch, AirPods, and Apple’s services.
Let’s start easy. Apple’s services sit atop all of their devices. They are, ipso facto, collaborative efforts, albeit in a mostly uninteresting way. Regardless, Cook’s signature hobbyhorse — and the thing that the Conventional Wisdom seems to parrot as the most important thing to come out of Apple in the Tim Cook Era — is undeniably collaborative.9
Apple Watch & AirPods:
First and foremost, the Apple Watch and AirPods were a product of a more auteur-focused Apple. They were ultimately Jony Ive’s babies and a product of Ive’s attempts at maintaining the insularity of his design team. Even on its face, then, these products should be taken with a grain of salt when viewed through the lens of a collaborative Apple – there were countervailing forces at work during a tumultuous time of transition. Insularity vs. collaboration; Forstall vs. Cook; Ive vs. Cook.
But we can even see Cook’s mark of collaboration in the Apple Watch and AirPods and in Ive’s work on them:
During the product’s development, Ive had played the role of Jobs and himself, overseeing industrial and software design, as well as directing marketing. The work had pulled him out of the design studio and into more and more meetings. The influence he had once sought over all aspects of a product’s development had burdened him with endless obligations and stress that took a physical toll. He fretted that he’d missed time with his eleven-year-old boys. He grew sick and caught pneumonia. — Tripp Mickle, After Steve
Despite the tragedy that these circumstances took a physical toll on Ive, these facts contain key evidence that even the watch (and, by extension, AirPods) – Apple’s most auteur product in the Tim Cook Era – was still a deeply collaborative effort. We see the results of this in the fact that the Watch (and AirPods) is (are) heavily intertwined with Apple’s Continuity features (and auto-switching). We’ll come back to these features in a moment, but we can minimally state that there is undoubtedly a collaborative mark on the watch (and AirPods).
Even these products – ones that we have, thus far, deemed a mixed bag in terms of legacy at Apple — bear the mark of the Cook Doctrine. Where else do we see that influence?
Continuity, aforementioned, might be one of the most overlooked results of increased collaboration. That is, Continuity has increased collaboration…between the Apple devices we own. Of course, I’m being cheeky here; increasing “collaboration” between our devices must mean there is deep collaboration between teams at Apple.
Apple devices’ ability to work together (mostly) seamlessly is something I often see taken for granted. It’s easy to take things for granted that are seamless in a subtle way, even when their execution is more akin to a magic trick. But seamless interplay between devices is something that’s far from a given when it comes to computing.
The bottom line here is that I don’t know if Continuity would have been as much of a priority in Jobs’ Apple, especially if Forstall (famously fired for his iOS fiefdom) and Ive (his insular industrial design team infamous for ignoring usability) were still at the company. Continuity is undeniably Cook.
And now, to really drive the point home: Apple silicon. It should be unsurprising that the core of Cook’s efforts have been in getting the right pieces in place — that’s the role of the producer, after all. I think it goes without saying that Apple silicon’s rollout is one of the most impressive executions of an enormous technological leap forward in the last decade, and that Apple silicon now sits at the center of all of Apple’s major efforts, from hardware to software to services. Apple silicon — the brain of Apple’s devices — is what literally runs the company’s products. Can’t get much more collaborative than that.
In a way, Cook’s influence, much like the man himself, is understated. It sits below the surface of many of Apple’s endeavors. His collaborative core has created an environment where the distinctions between Apple’s products have continued to soften: services sit on top of Apple’s platform, for example, while Continuity blurs the lines between them. Apple silicon sits at the center of the shift, powering the future of the company along with its devices.
One more thing…
If Cook’s resumé stopped there, I think any reasonable person would say that he was an extremely successful CEO. He’s steadied the ship. He’s left his mark. He’s avoided stagnation. In the end, it may have been foolish to embark on a full retrospective of the Tim Cook Era — it may just be too early to make a great judgement – but I think we are on the precipice of Cook’s chance for his iPhone moment. In fact, Tim Cook has one more thing — a final major product category he’s gunning to launch. Essentially everyone agrees that it’s going to be Apple’s mixed-reality headset, a huge initiative that I think we can now say will be the true test of the Tim Cook Era, and thus of a producer’s ability to run Apple.
When Jobs introduced the iPhone, he performed a little magic trick: Apple would take three separate products and make them into one (“are you getting it?”). It was no accident, either. The best presentations, like the best films, pull one over on the audience with a little deception, a little vision, and a lot of hard work and skill. A great auteur works their sleight of hand to weave a narrative so compelling that it moves you. A great producer pulls together artists in the name of making something so great that you won’t even realize how enormous the undertaking was. Apple’s best products, exemplified by the iPhone, are the same way. They just work. They make you think different. They’re magical. I suppose that, after all this, I’m just excited for what Tim Cook’s got up his sleeve.
Fun fact: author, authority, and auteur all share a common latin root.↩︎
As I noted before, auteur theory itself, as a method of film critique, is mired in controversy, is generally ill-defined, and (in my evaluation) lacks focus on what it aims to accomplish. When Andrew Sarris appropriated the French term “auteur” in 1962, he came the closest to crystallizing a definition, which includes three criteria for a successful auteur: (1) Technical competence, (2) Style, and (3) Interior meaning. Our framework, for the purposes of this essay, builds more on Gruber’s analysis of auteur theory (which I find more sensible, by the way), but does align with Sarris’ read on auteur theory as well, especially with “technical competence” and “style”.↩︎
Plus two honorary awards, for a total of ten.↩︎
Again, from After Steve: “Word spread through the company that Cook wanted its next major device to deliver at least $10 billion in sales, an artificial benchmark to ensure that any project Apple pursued would be more than a rounding error for a company now reporting $170 billion in annual revenue.” If you have derived any value from this essay, you really need to read this book!↩︎
A note here, for transparency: I have no idea how to accurately find market sizes…I did my best, but the bracketed estimates of market sizes are mostly the result of me doing some quick Googling.↩︎
As an aside, it’s also worth noting that Cook clearly believed in having “self-honesty to admit when [Apple was] wrong,” something Forstall struggled with. When the Apple Maps launched as a dud, Cook asked Forstall to sign an apology to customers, and guess who didn’t sign.↩︎
You could nitpick with me over the fact that Tim Cook’s leadership has taken Jobs’ products and made Apple the most successful company in the world, but the point I’m making here is that Apple is looking for its next product. If Apple was still “the Mac company,” it wouldn’t have the privilege of being “the iPhone company!”↩︎
It’s fun to note here that Cook is, for all intents and purposes, a literal studio executive with a Best Picture Oscar and Outstanding Comedy Emmy now.↩︎