By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009
Can Apple Chief Operating Officer Timothy Cook fill the black turtleneck?
Steve Jobs has said that he intends to return to the company he founded at the end of June, after a five-month leave he is taking to fight the illness that has left him with a gaunt appearance. In the meantime, Apple will be helmed by Cook, a respected manager little known outside Silicon Valley.
"I know he and the rest of the executive management team will do a great job," Jobs wrote in an e-mail distributed inside the company Wednesday.
The early consensus, among some analysts and Mac fans, is that Cook is an able administrator, though not necessarily one with the sort of salesmanship skills or industry-bending vision as his boss.
Travis Good, with the local computer user group Washington Apple Pi, said that Cook is known as being "excellent" as an executive in charge of "delivering product, keeping schedules and maintaining margins." Apple, however, is famous for innovative products and exceptional design and those qualities are "not something Cook stands for."
Cook's low-key demeanor is in contrast with Jobs, who is known for being quick-tempered and short on patience. Described as a fitness enthusiast and avid cycler, Cook also serves on the board at Nike.
Cook, who started his career at Apple in 1998, first took on the responsibility of restructuring the company's supply chain management, a job he had done for his previous employers, Compaq and IBM. He now heads Apple's worldwide sales and operations and its Mac computer division.
Cook, 48, has been in the driver's seat at Apple once before, in 2004 when Jobs was on medical leave and fighting pancreatic cancer. Even though Apple was busy expanding its iTunes service offerings and its new chain of retail stores at the time, the company "didn't skip a beat," according to Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Silicon Valley think tank Creative Strategies.
Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster, said he believes the executive is ideally suited to "keep the engines running" during Jobs's absence. "He works hours as long as, if not longer than, Steve Jobs," he said.
Apple's longer-term future may be more uncertain. Tech pundits have started to ask more frequently about the company's succession plan. Industry analyst Roger Kay, with Endpoint Technologies, said he that Jobs's personality style has been a hurdle to the company in figuring out who will eventually replace him -- whether that's a decision the company needs to make this year or years down the road.
"A big ego can't tolerate another big ego, I think that's a part of the tragedy here," he said. "The guys who have managed to survive at Apple are able to sublimate their will better than the average person. That means they're the exact opposite of [Jobs]."
So, as Cook takes over Jobs's day-to-day duties this week, Apple watchers are faced with new questions. Some wonder whether he will be able to return to the company he founded. And if he doesn't, will Apple be able to keep its edge as a leading innovator?
"There are 25,000 people at Apple other than Steve," said Michael Gartenberg, an industry analyst who thinks the company has a deep enough talent pool to keep up its pace of innovation.
Others aren't as optimistic. "They're not going to find another guy able to see around corners and discover businesses that nobody knew existed," said Kay.