Jul 9, 2015

Can Tim Cook keep Steve Jobs' dream alive?

When Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985, it lost more than its focus; the vision of the company had changed and in time, began to falter. More than a decade later, in 1986, Jobs returned to Apple and the rest, as they say, is history.

What that time period seemed to demonstrate was that Apple could simply not be "Apple" without Steve Jobs at the helm.

Fate dealt the technology world a hard blow when Jobs lost his battle with cancer on Oct. 5, 2011. And that began the rule of CEO Tim Cook.

Until this year, I never really questioned Cook’s ability to continue the Jobs legacy with impunity. After all, he did lead the company to unprecedented success with the launch if the iPhone 6. But that was just building on the house that Steve built. Tim Cook had to start creating his own legacy. And so he has.

Cook revealed the new direction he wanted to take the company with new product launches in the post-Jobs era. Some think they were good, others not so much.

The first major Cook release came in March 2015, with the new 12-inch MacBook. The ultra-thin notebook, touted as the thinnest of its kind in the world, caught some by surprise, since there was speculation that the next greatest thing from Apple would be a bigger iPad “pro” or the addition of a retina display for the industry-changing MacBook Air.

Instead what we got was an underpowered, overpriced piece of “jewelry” complete with options for gold, silver, and space grey coatings. To further confound and confuse the masses, the new MacBook lost its beloved Mag-Safe charger, and all its connectivity, save for one USB C-type port. It did have a retina display. Yet some believe the trade-off for size over performance was a misstep on the part of Apple. The starting price for the new MacBook is $1299, which is a lot for a base model computer running on a 1.1Ghz core M chip.

This was Tim Cook’s MacBook, not Steve Jobs’. It featured fashion over function - words I can’t imagine ever coming out of Jobs’ mouth when it came to Apple computers - but I could be wrong.

On one hand, you can see the benefits of the MacBook’s ultra-portability. But those benefits are quickly crushed by the fact that you have to drag dongles around to plug anything into it, apart from the charger.

The shift from function to fashion was reinforced when Apple decided to hire former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts in April, 2014, to head-up the retail and online divisions.

Since then, change was indeed in the air, and in Apple stores - or should I say, not in Apple stores.

When the 2015 MacBook was released, no one could actually walk into a store and buy it, and in some areas, were also unable to see it in-person. The computers were simply not available for immediate purchase and online order delays stretched on for up to 6 weeks.

Was it fashion guru Ahrendt’s idea to tease the release of a new product to Apple’s loyal fans, then deny them access to it? Was it a supply chain issue? And if so, why bother to release a product that people can't walk into a store and buy?

If any other company had pulled a stunt like this, they would probably have a hard time staying in business.

So why would Apple customers put up with that appears to be either very bad management or an abysmal misadventure in consumer marketing? That’s easy. This is the company that Steve built and he earned his customers’ trust.

But the reputation Steve Jobs built for Apple is not impervious.

The fashion-minded Ahrendts repeated that confusing and frustrating marketing strategy with the Apple Watch. By the time the devices were actually available to purchase in Apple stores in July, the device was already being heralded as a flop.

The Apple Watch and MacBook seem to have more in common than just marketing without product availability. Both are at least trying to make a fashion statement of some sort. Apple Watch takes things a step further by separating customers into economic classes as well with the gold Edition Apple Watch. With a price tag that starts at $10,000, it screams we are now catering to the donor class. 

In the post Steve Jobs era, Apple’s new push to re-brand itself as a player in the fashion and jewelry industry might work at some point. Then again, maybe it won’t. Time will tell (no pun intended).

It would probable help if Apple wasn’t also re-branding itself as another Microsoft with updates that add headaches and break features instead of simply enhancing them.

Don't get me wrong. I love Apple products and own lots of them. But I fear that Tim Cook is forgetting how and why the company built its reputation and loyal fan base. The Apple Inc. that Steve Jobs created gave us beautifully built computers that came with great customer service and an OS that "just worked" right out of the box.

For me, the sooner Apple ditches Ahrendts in this bizarre quest to be associated with fashion, and goes back to building and selling great computers, the happier I (and perhaps millions of others) will be.