Apple's Tim Cook: One 'year' on, what's changed?

Apple's Tim Cook can round off his first year -- well, kind of -- as chief executive as an overall success. A look back at his five biggest hurdles, and how he fared.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on

Tim Cook today marks one year since he was officially named Apple's full-time chief executive; the seventh company leader to date, and successor to Steve Jobs, who co-founded the technology giant.

But in twelve months, Apple hasn't faltered or missed a beat. Was it all down to Cook, or was it hard work mixed in with plain good luck?

Apple CEO Tim Cook at WWDC 2012. Credit: James Martin/CNET.

Steve Jobs took medical leave in January 2011 while he was suffering the end-stages of pancreatic cancer. Then-chief operating officer Cook was made de facto company leader, responsible for the day-to-day operations at the technology supergiant, while Jobs remained fully in the loop and remained in charge, making the difficult decisions any chief executive would need to.

Jobs resigned on August 24 as his final days drew closer, Cook stepped into take over the company. The full extent of Jobs' illness was unknown. He died on October 5; the day after the iPhone 4S was announced.

Also see: ZDNet: Steve Jobs: A retrospective | When does Apple's Tim Cook era really begin? | Tim Cook and a more likeable Apple | The one country Apple can't crack: China | CNET: Apple's Tim Cook notches first year as CEO | Tim Cook: 'I've never really felt the weight of trying to be Steve' | D10: Tim Cook speaks his mind | CBS News: Steve Jobs' legacy | Can Tim Cook do what Steve Jobs couldn't?

Shortly after Cook's ascension to the Apple throne, ZDNet editor-in-chief Larry Dignan outlined five challenges for the already warmed-up chief executive, in amid a bevy of upcoming and expected software and hardware updates -- OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, which was released last month; iOS 6, due for launch this fall; and the iPhone 5, which will likely debut next month.

How has he fared so far? 

Brain drain. Cook said that Apple is "not going to change" in his first email to his staff. Little has, at least what we know of. The product cycle kept spinning, its WWDC 2012 developer conference went ahead as planned, and the 'talk to no-one' culture remains; despite Cook's efforts to "double down" on secrecy, a string of alleged iPhone 5 leaks may lead to the least surprising iPhone announcement to date, the iPhone 4's drinking session notwithstanding.

One of his problems faced was whether or not he could retain the talent in post-Jobs world. Cook has seen a number of senior executives and vice-presidents leave during the time Jobs took his final medical leave, to wit: the alleged forced retirement of former Apple security unit chief John Theriault, and the resignations of retail chief Ron JohnsonMac software vice-president Bertrand Serlet, and vice-president of mobile advertising for iAd Andy Miller. Only the not-so-forced retirements of hardware engineering vice-president Bob Mansfield and corporate controller Betsy Rafael came under Cook's reign.

Tough act to follow and impossible expectations? Cook never set himself up -- nor was it particularly expected for the newly-named chief executive -- to follow in Steve Jobs' footsteps. He probably would have caused offense in any attempt to become Jobs 2.0 to staff, investors, and Apple fans, rather than step out of Jobs' shadow. 

At first it was a worry. Who knew what would happen to Apple? Would Cook go his own way, or take the reins as though nothing had happened? Both, and neither. Apple saw a new dawn after Jobs' death. Cook picked up the company and forged his own way. He's made enough of a name for himself to claim his stake to the Apple fortune, but was careful not to turn himself into the story. 

Finding the next big thing. This was already set-up for him, arguably. The roadmap for Apple products -- what truly defines the company -- was a logical progression. iPhone 4S meet iPhone 5. Mac OS 10.7 Lion meets OS X Mountain Lion. iPad 2 meets, well, "the new iPad," which some might say is Cook's new approach to naming products under the next-generation Apple. The product roadmap ran itself.

But the rumors keep stirring that Apple is working on a 7-inch iPad, dubbed the iPad Mini. Although it wasn't Apple bringing the expected 7-inch tablet to the market, it was the market that brought the 7-inch tablet to Apple. Pressure from major players such as Google, Amazon, and Samsung all but forced Apple into a 'play, or get out' scenario, despite Jobs' "dead on arrival" comments -- even if he did warm up to the idea in the end.

Developing new markets. Apple's place in China was almost non-existent under the Jobsian era. Jobs actively avoided a visit to the country in favor of sending Cook. But Cook went again -- the first time since he was made chief executive -- to make headway in light of the Proview intellectual property ding-dong, sort out things with Foxconn, and to hobnob with the Chinese bourgeois.

Following The New York Times' damning report on Foxconn's working conditions -- Apple's main manufacturer -- Cook set fire to the company's secrecy policy and threw open the doors of transparency. Apple allowed in human rights and labor groups and audited all of its independent contractors in the region. Cook didn't just carve new markets and develop new opportunities in regions normally pushed aside under the 'old Apple,' he embraced China as a test case for other markets. Not a bad place to start, really. 

Keeping the edge. Cook has been busy keeping the product lines running, but also worked to make the company's image different. From investor dividends to matching charitable donations, these things put Apple in the par category with most other companies. 

But even in the intellectual property race, Apple will likely claim ultimate victory its case against Samsung. While Jobs may have declared "thermonuclear war" against Google-owned Android, Cook led the troops into battle to take out the rival operating system's barracks: Samsung. How this will work out, we'll find out in the coming days and weeks.

This will be what defines Cook's legacy -- at least, if or when something bigger comes along. While Apple reinvented the computer with the Mac, the smartphone with the iPhone -- all under Jobs -- Cook's patent fight may force rival companies to go back to the drawing board to basically reinvent the very concept of a mobile device.

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