There are conflicting storylines out there about Apple in the post-Steve Jobs era.
One comes from its balance sheet. In the year since the Apple co-founder died at the age of 56, his company has flourished. The company has set record sales for the iPhone and the iPad. It’s the most valuable company in the world. And its stock has skyrocketed — from around $377 a share on the day Jobs died to more than $650 Friday.
In a statement, Apple chief executive Tim Cook paid tribute to his former boss and reaffirmed that Jobs’s ideals run deep at the company. “Our values originated from Steve and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple,” Cook wrote Friday. “We share the great privilege and responsibility of carrying his legacy into the future.”
The other storyline, one that warns Apple is losing its grip, is harder to pin down. Despite financial successes, critics have dogged Apple since Jobs’s death, asking if the hunger for cutting-edge perfection that Jobs made the heart of the company died with him.
There are three main problems that have Apple critics see. The first, they say, is that Steve Jobs, for all intents and purposes, was the company.
“It’s almost a cultish culture there and a cultish base of consumers,” said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president at the Washington-area strategic communications firm Levick. “At Apple ,it really counts who’s CEO.”
Though it’s actually been almost two years since Jobs ran the day-to-day operations at Apple, criticism didn’t hit a fever pitch until the company released its first earnings report under chief executive Tim Cook. Apple missed analyst expectations for the first time in years.
Which brings us to the second element cited by critics: There are signs that Apple is changing.
The new iPad, iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 sold like hotcakes, but also drew a lot of criticism for being iterative instead of innovative. Apple broke ground with the first versions of those products. The follow-ups, to some, have been like Apple pulling its weeds.
“Their genius is in creating whole new categories,” said Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath. “I haven’t seen evidence that they’re doing that again. I think it would be very hard for anybody to do that.”
Apple bears also say that product quality has dropped, pointing to Siri and Apple Maps — both programs that shipped before they were fully polished. Yet not everything Jobs touched turned to gold, either. The company’s MobileMe service was a big flop, as was its iTunes-associated social network service Ping.
Part of what has changed at Apple, McGrath noted, is that it’s no longer the scrappy boutique brand. It’s the most valuable company in the world. Sometimes it acts accordingly.
“It’s starting to feel more like a regular company,” McGrath said. “It’s got a lot to lose now.” Any misstep, notably Apple’s decision to swap out Google’s Maps app for its own, less-developed, software, becomes reason enough for Cook to write an open letter of apology on the company Web site.
Which brings us to our third component: Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs.
Almost no one questions that Cook knows how to run the company. Cook served as acting chief executive during all of Jobs’ medical leaves, making it clear he was the company’s hand-picked successor. He’s also the one credited with building Apple’s supply chain. Under his watch, Apple’s become more transparent about its labor practices, started matching charitable donations and been more open with its customers.
But he’s more reserved than Jobs, and not the kind of salesman who can convince customers they need a product they didn’t even know about two months before.
“I think Tim is really great at what he does,” said Ken Segall, a former Apple advertising executive. “But most people, including Tim, probably agree he is not the visionary that Steve was.”
To compensate for that, Cook has essentially split Jobs’s role as chief executive and chief innovator among other top Apple executives such as marketing head Phil Schiller and Apple’s head designer, Jony Ive.
Jobs was a “very special person, there will never be another one like him,” said Segall. “But Apple will encounter situations that Steve could never have dreamed of. You can’t expect it to be exactly as it was under Steve.”