Tim Cook gave his second-ever interview as Apple's CEO last night. He said all the right things about the company's present and future, but lurking behind every question was the past. Just like it has been for every Apple product release and rumor since last October.
It may not be fair, but it's Apple's biggest concern right now: The legacy of Steve Jobs doesn't cast a shadow. It creates a total eclipse.
The Power of Legacy
There's a paradox at the heart of any major decision Apple makes now.
On the one hand, the company has to show that it's still aligned with Jobs's singular vision; any sign that it's deviating from those standards conjures up memories of Apple's darkest era, the Jobsless decade that almost destroyed it. If you think anyone at One Infinite Loop has forgotten what happened the last time Steve Jobs left Apple, you're kidding yourself. Doubly so if you think they'd let it happen again.
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But it's not quite as simple as just following the Jobs blueprint. Partly because there isn't one; there's no doubt that he was involved in the early planning stages of any product Apple releases this year, but as we saw with Siri, that's a far cry from seeing it through to excellence. More than that, though, Apple must demonstrate that it can innovate beyond Jobs, since he's not around to guide it anymore.
So how to emulate Jobs while distancing yourself from him? How do you outshine a ghost?
We don't know what Apple's next products are going to be. No one does, aside from a handful of folks in Cupertino and maybe a Foxconn exec or two. But let's assume for a moment that there's a grain of truth to the two most prevalent rumors that have been swirling the last few months: a smaller iPad, and a stretched out iPhone.
Jobs very publicly hated both of these things. Seven-inch tablets? Please. Jobs said as early as October 2010 that they're worthless "unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size." He didn't have much nicer to say about phones that weren't 3.5-inches.
And yet it's clear enough that the small iPad and long iPhone are being tinkered with in some windowless Cupertino R&D lab. Someone's probably playing Angry Birds on one right now.
Is this Tim Cook defiantly spreading his wings and leaving the nest? You'd think so. But it's not quite so cut and dry.
Beyond the Ideal
The problem runs deeper than just can we or can't we escape the legacy of Jobs. It's that the iPad, and to some degree the iPhone, are already such fundamentally sound devices that there's no clear path to improving them within the confines of their current shape and size. There's a reason Heinz doesn't change its ketchup recipe every year.
Seriously, think about it. What would you do to the iPad or iPhone that hasn't been done already? Slightly faster processor, sure. Make them waterproof and shatterproof, okay. But those incremental improvements aren't worth the biannual dog and pony shows that have made Apple's reputation. For that, you need a wow. And as we learned when the new iPad came out, a spec bump just doesn't cut it.
So even if Apple wanted to keep in line with Jobs' strict vision, it can't indefinitely. Not if it wants keep the hype around its product announcements alive and well. Who's going to line up for days outside of an Apple store for a smaller dock connector?
Apple, then, needs to diversify its products, not just with fresh guts but with fresh looks. All while making sure that whatever it announces still has a Jobsian imprimatur.
Not long after the first rumors of an elongated iPhone first cropped up, Bloomberg reported that Steve Jobs had "worked closely" on it right up until he passed away. The timing of the leak was no coincidence; Apple had to make it known early that even if iPhone 5 looks totally antithetical to what Jobs had held dear, it was still his baby. Evolved, but connected.
There hasn't been anything similar said about the iPad yet, but we're also nearly a year away from a tablet refresh. Cook laid the groundwork for a major upheaval last night, though, in his All Things D interview:
"He would flip on something so fast, that you would forget that he was the person taking a 180-degree position on that issue the day before," Cook said. "I saw it daily. He wouldn't even remember it."
In other words: Don't hold us accountable to what Steve Jobs said. He never did.
Cook is a pragmatist. He offered a dividend where Jobs would never. He opened negotiations in the patent wars where Jobs built armies. And he's likely seen enough reports about the growing market share of big phones to know that Apple might have to make one, too. He is respectful, but not beholden.
And then there's the exception.
That HDTV Unicorn
Small iPad, long iPhone. They'd represent shifts in Apple's strategy even more dramatic than the ones we've already seen. But they're nothing compared to the burden of the Apple HDTV.
Maybe the biggest revelation of the Steve Jobs biography was that Jobs had finally "cracked" the television problem. Presumably meaning that he'd found a way for Apple to sell one. It was presented as his last great innovation, and it's increasingly clear that it's going to become a reality.
No pressure, guys!
Last night Cook was coy on Apple HDTV, saying only that his company's set top box was still "an area of intense interest for us." But the truth is, Jobs didn't leave Apple any choice in the matter. If the company fails to produce an HDTV, then it failed to bring Steve Jobs's vision to life. If it does sell one and it flops, the assumption is that they couldn't hack it without Jobs.
They need to do it because of him. They need to prove they can do it without him. It's a constant push-pull, a balance between evolution and roots. It's a very small needle to thread.
Greatness vs. Success
Apple has enough cash on hand to fill a thousand Scrooge McDuck baths, and it sells the most popular consumer electronics products in the world. Under Steve Jobs, it achieved absolute greatness by almost any benchmark.
In fact, Apple's got such a strong grip on its industry that it could keep releasing the exact same iPhone and iPad with minor spec and feature bumps for the next five years and still be a highly profitable company. In other words: It could coast, and still be successful.
But here's the key to Apple's legacy paradox: It can move as far away from what Jobs said and did as it wants, as long as it leads. As long as it's both first and best. And in a world where everyone else already has a big phone and a small tablet, the challenge might be even deeper than it suspects.