After the iPhone 5: How will Apple CEO Tim Cook create his legacy?


Apple CEO Tim Cook is expected to unveil the iPhone 5 on Wednesday. (David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG)

And everyone else? They’ll be watching Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is expected to unveil the highly anticipated iPhone 5 on Wednesday. Some think the response—hard as it is to believe—could be overwhelming enough to singlehandedly affect GDP.

Whatever the economic impact, or whatever the technological innovations, iPhone sales, at least, are unlikely to disappoint. The pent-up demand for the phone is astounding, and analysts expect first-weekend sales—yes, just the first weekend—to top 5 million units. Some analysts are enthusiastically throwing out wild projections of the product’s total potential sales. One even sees iPhone 5 sales reaching 250 million units over its lifetime.

But after the dust settles, and the new iPhones—and possibly new iPads—get snapped up, what’s next for Apple’s CEO?

The Los Angeles Times has a smart look at Cook’s leadership, and what investors will be looking for down the road. However smooth the transition has been between Cook and the late Steve Jobs, and however much the company continues to succeed, many Apple watchers are looking for the next truly novel product or idea from a company whose fortunes have been built on revolutions, not evolutions.

For instance, the Times quotes developer Matt Brezina, chief executive of mobile start-up Sincerely Inc.: “I think we are definitely still riding Steve Jobs’ stewardship. Tim needs to define what kind of leader he is externally. As a developer on their platform, I'm not quite sure what kind of leader he is yet.” Venture capitalist Pete Solvik sounded a similar refrain: “The $64,000 question is: Does Tim have the ability to lead the organization to another major breakthrough in a new product category?”

Cook has that most impossible of jobs: stepping in for a leader whose iconic status is unrivaled. For now, few will question his leadership, especially if the guy can generate 5 million new phone sales in one weekend. But over time—especially as year-over-year sales get harder and harder to hit—Cook’s own legacy will start to be questioned, as fans wait for The Next Big Apple Product Category (as an Apple TV set could be) or the next industry-shattering idea (like iTunes was). The expectation for Apple, and therefore for Cook, will continue to be the creation of breakthrough products, rather than simply iterative ones.

See more:

LIVE BLOG | Apple’s iPhone 5 announcement


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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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