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Tim Cook’s commerce triumphed over Jony Ive’s art. Apple should be thankful

May 2, 2022, 4:52 PM UTC

By the mere introduction of the word “soul” in its title, a new book detailing the post-Steve Jobs era of Apple forces us to contemplate the essence of a business.

After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, authored by tech journalist Tripp Mickle, explores the complicated relationship of the company’s two most famous executives over the past decade, CEO Tim Cook and former chief design officer Jony Ive. The book goes on sale Tuesday, though a 3,000-word excerpt dropped Sunday on the website of Mickle’s employer, The New York Times. (Mickle joined the Times last month after an eight-year stint at The Wall Street Journal, where he covered Apple.)

The excerpt summarizes the inevitable conflicts that arose between Cook, the wonkish personification of commerce, and Ive, the stylish symbol of art, following Jobs’ death in 2011. In doing so, it poses fundamental questions about which values take precedence at an era-defining corporation.

Under the leadership of Jobs, who returned as Apple CEO in 1997, Ive blossomed into an iconic figure. Ive’s colorful iMac designs in the late 1990s and sleek iPhone configuration helped propel Apple’s renaissance. He found a kindred spirit in Jobs, who married the company’s remarkable technical accomplishments with its signature minimalist design.

Jobs’ death, however, ushered in new leadership. Cook, an industrial engineer by trade, focused more on bottom lines and supply chains than his predecessor. While Cook understood Ive’s value, his reticence to indulge the design guru’s artistic intuition caused friction. Mickle also writes that Ive “struggled with a shift in the company’s focus from making devices to developing services,” a change that reduced the need for aesthetic supremacy.

Ultimately, Cook emerged as the more powerful and astute figure. 

He remains CEO after building Apple into the world’s most valuable company, while Ive departed in 2019 to start his own design firm. Apple’s iPhone sales approached $200 billion in 2021, even though its hardware and operating system appearance are fundamentally similar to early iterations. The company’s service revenues represent the largest non-iPhone slice of Apple’s growth in the past several years.

Yet the last three words of Mickle’s title—lost its soul—implies that Cook somehow debased the company in his pursuit of manufacturing efficiency and service-driven revenue. 

As a matter of full disclosure, I have not read the book, and this may be an unfortunate case of a wayward title failing to accurately encapsulate the text. A book review in The New York Times by Clay Shirky, vice provost for educational technologies at New York University, seems to suggest Mickle’s prose is more nuanced, merely faulting Cook for fully embracing a figure “who wanted to bring empathy to every product.”

But if Cook does come under scrutiny for easing out the embodiment of Apple, the critique appears unwarranted.

The Jobs era was defined by the allure of tangible hardware. We had never before seen products as powerful as the iMac or iPhone that also came wrapped in such evocative, Ive-designed packaging.

The Cook era, by contrast, is marked by the rise of intangible products—apps, audio and video streaming, cloud storage, social media, software—that diminished Ive’s importance. Cook masterfully met the moment, modernizing Apple’s hardware manufacturing business while harnessing the power of its operating systems and app store.

If the soul of a company rests with how it makes you feel, then perhaps Apple has shed some of its luster. Apple’s massive growth, fueled by expansion into all manner of industries, renders it decidedly corporate. We may never again experience a jolt of innocent excitement that compares to holding an early iPhone.

But if a company’s soul is defined by its cultural and financial position—a much better measure, I’d argue—Apple has never looked more fulfilled. Its product line and bottom line are stronger than ever. Its reputation remains top-notch. And revolutionary new technologies, including augmented reality glasses and self-driving cars, might be on the horizon.

“The book is an amazingly detailed portrait of the permanent tension between strategy and luck: Companies make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,” Shirkey wrote in his Times review. “What happened after Steve was that Cook’s greatest opportunities were in Apple’s future, Ive’s in its past.”

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Officially on notice. The European Union formally hit Apple with antitrust charges Monday, alleging the company violated the bloc’s laws by restricting access to its iPhone tap-to-pay technology. EU regulators argue Apple’s refusal to allow third-party companies to use its payment processing technology, a bedrock of the company’s Apple Pay feature, is illegal under EU rules designed to foster competition. Apple officials claim that opening access to the technology, known as near-field communications, could lead to security issues for users. The Financial Times reported last Friday that the charges were imminent.

Some expensive realty fees. Yuga Labs, the company behind the Bored Ape Yacht Club non-fungible tokens, raked in $320 million worth of cryptocurrency from a virtual land sale Saturday, but the rush caused a huge spike in transaction fees and disrupted the entire Ethereum blockchain, Bloomberg reported. Thousands of buyers took ownership of parcels in Yuga Labs’ Otherside virtual land, spending about $5,800 worth of ApeCoin, a cryptocurrency token loosely affiliated with the company. However, transaction fees totaled about $123 million, with some buyers spending more on charges than their virtual property.

The Oracle of Cupertino. Berkshire Hathaway bought $600 million worth of Apple shares during a three-day drop in the company’s stock price during the first quarter, CNBC reported Monday. The Warren Buffett-led outfit reported owning about $159 billion worth of Apple shares at the end of March, accounting for roughly 40% of the investment company’s portfolio. Apple shares fell 4% in the first quarter, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 saw a 14% decline during the same period.

Scoring round two. Federal labor officials are expected Monday evening to announce the results of a second, smaller union drive at an Amazon warehouse on New York City’s Staten Island, The Associated Press reported. A victory by labor organizers could further galvanize early unionization efforts brewing at Amazon, Apple, and several national retailers, while a loss could quell momentum after a stunning win for union-supporting workers on Staten Island last month. About 8,300 Amazon employees were eligible to vote in the successful April union drive, while roughly 1,500 are eligible for this month’s election.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The Sunday stories. The last weekend of April brought two deep dives into the biggest news of the month: Elon Musk’s planned acquisition of Twitter. The Wall Street Journal explored how a cadre of billionaires, libertarian activists, and close business buddies encouraged the Tesla CEO to take a stand on free speech by snapping up the social media companies. The New York Times, meanwhile, detailed the inner machinations on Twitter’s board, which wrestled with the unpredictable entrepreneur’s true intentions and its obligation to shareholders.

From the latter article:

A central mystery of Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is how the company’s board went from installing a poison pill to agreeing to sell to him in just 11 days. In most megadeals, the adoption of a poison pill leads to a protracted fight. The tactic is a clear signal that a company intends to battle. Negotiations then drag out. Sometimes buyers walk away.

But interviews with a dozen people close to the transaction, who were not authorized to speak publicly, show just how few options Twitter’s board had. And while there are many types of buyers that deal advisers are prepared to fend off—hostile ones, aggressive ones, those who lowball and then are willing to negotiate—Twitter faced an acquirer in Mr. Musk who was not in any deal playbook.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Square Enix sells Tomb Raider, other big franchises, for less than 1% of what Microsoft paid for Activision, by Chris Morris

‘Extremely risky’ and ‘inherently predatory’: Wikipedia organization decides to stop accepting crypto donations, by David Meyer

April was a brutal month for stocks. Here are 3 charts that lay out the carnage, and 1 that should give investors hope, by Bernhard Warner

How gamification-based apps are aiming to reduce your carbon footprint, by Katherine Dunn

Hundreds of companies have pulled out of Russia. Here’s why a rock-and-roll legend refuses to close his factory there, by David Meyer

Raytheon, union reach labor deal at key jet engine plants, by Ryan Beene and Bloomberg

Back with the banned: Do Twitter’s exiles return under Musk?, by David Klepper and The Associated Press

BEFORE YOU GO

Feel better, work better. It’s a tough time to manage an organization, whether it’s a mom-and-pop outfit or a large tech conglomerate. In recognition of the personal and professional challenges wrought by this complicated moment, Fortune is launching a new vertical, called Well, that will guide you toward a healthier work-life balance. As our editor-in-chief, Alyson Shontell, wrote: “Fortune Well will provide actionable tips for readers on how to manage stress, stay active, be more productive, maintain better relationships, and make better choices around their own wellbeing.” Check it out, give it a bookmark, and best of luck putting this advice into action.

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