Steve Jobs was literally a towering presence at Tim Cook's highly anticipated 10th anniversary iPhone launch event Tuesday. The late Apple co-founder's name was on the auditorium where the event at the company's new spaceship campus was held. Giant images of the company's iconic former chief executive stared out behind Cook as he opened the event and dedicated the space to him. And it was Jobs's voice — not Cook's — that the audience heard first.
"One of the ways people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there," a recording of Jobs crackled through the space. "So we need to be true to who we are and remember what’s really important to us. That’s what’s going to keep Apple 'Apple:' Is if we keep us 'us.' "
For the many Apple watchers who've questioned whether Cook will ever match the company's innovation mojo under Jobs, for the tech enthusiasts who've been waiting for Apple's next big game-changing product platform, for the analysts who've wondered whether this would be the moment when Cook stepped out of Jobs's shadow, Cook seemed to have an answer: He's fine with embracing the legacy of his predecessor.
"I love hearing his voice and his inspiring message, and it was only fitting that Steve should open his theater," Cook said, appearing emotional in the tribute. "Steve's spirit and timeless philosophy on life will always be the DNA of Apple. His greatest gift — his greatest expression of his appreciation for humanity — would not be a single product. But rather, it would be Apple itself."
In other words, Cook could be interpreted as saying, his biggest job isn't necessarily the splashy revelation of a new product, but the growth and continuation of the company itself.
On that score, many Apple observers say Cook has done well. Asymco analyst Horace Dediu said in a recent interview that "we want to make heroes, but I think it's actually harder to preserve something someone else builds." When Jobs passed away, Dediu says, Cook defied critics who thought the end could be near, even if his product launches haven't yet shaken up industries the way Jobs's did. "He's kept the business not only operating but thriving and prospering and growing. That's a major thing for any follower of a founder to do."
Indeed, having someone come in and shake things up may have been exactly the wrong thing for Apple after Jobs, says Michael Cusumano, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. While he says Apple has lost ground to competitors and questions some recent moves — a premier-priced iPhone; the move into content production — he also thinks Cook has done better than expected.
"He’s kept the company together and we didn’t think anybody could succeed Steve Jobs," he said. "I think in terms of the psychology of the company, it was probably better not to have another technology visionary take over. I think it would have been too many clashes with people in the company Jobs had brought in and nurtured."
Yet the comparisons and the expectations are sure to remain. Even if the iPhone has been perhaps the most successful consumer product in history — a truly "lightning in a bottle thing," says Scott Anthony, managing director of the innovation consultancy Innosight — Cook is likely to keep facing questions about how he measures up to that revolutionary yardstick. "We still hold Apple to that, because Apple, in its 40-year history, has continually shown us that it can do that," Anthony said. "It’s totally unfair, but yet we will still demand it."
Such comparisons might leave many CEOs ready to push their predecessor into the background, to minimize the icon's presence, to do less to remind everyone of the towering status of the one who came before. Especially when the company they lead is repeatedly being questioned for falling behind rivals like Amazon or Google in some areas.
Yet Cook seems unfazed by it, even comfortable in the role of carrying the torch while finding ways to place his own stamp on the company. Last year, when asked about filling Jobs's shoes in an interview with The Washington Post, Cook said, "To me, Steve's not replaceable. By anyone." He said, "I never viewed that as my role. I think it would have been a treacherous thing if I would have tried to do it."
Tuesday's event was a reminder of that philosophy. Cook opened with a tribute to Jobs. Near the end of the presentation, Apple's head of marketing Phil Schiller repeated a Wayne Gretzky quote Jobs used to introduce the iPhone 10 years ago — about skating to where the puck is going. And finally, Cook reiterated Jobs's recorded phrase about humanity and making something wonderful. "We hope you love what we introduced today," he said. "I think Steve would be really proud of them."