When does Apple's Tim Cook era really begin?

New Apple CEO Tim Cook may be underestimated at first, but analysts say his imprint on the company's roadmap will start appearing in the years to come.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple and Tim Cook, a natural pick for the job, took over to lead the company. Jobs, however, will become chairman of Apple's board and most likely be involved major product strategy and design issues. When will Cook be the true front man for Apple?

As David Morgenstern noted, Apple had a changing of the guard, but the sky didn't fall. And when you read the Jobs' takes from the likes of Walt Mossberg, Om Malik and others one thing is clear (ZDNet coverage, CNET coverage, CBS News coverage). Jobs isn't gone and hints at an obit are widely premature. Jobs will be less visible for sure, but it's safe to say he may be one of the more involved chairmen in the corporate world. Jobs departure as CEO wasn't a surprise, but still managed to surprise a lot of us.

Those moving parts raise an interesting question: When does the Cook era really begin? The kudos for Cook are far and wide. Frankly, there was no other Apple CEO option. Cook stepped up and ran Apple three times---2004, 2009 and 2011. He has managed Apple's supply chain to the point where it is the company's best asset.

Also: Steve Jobs: Thinking through his CEO legacy

But what's unclear is when will Apple's products really be Cook's. When will Cook's products be front and center and not Jobs'? When will Apple's roadmap reflect Cook's persona?

Now there's a strong management bench at Apple so there are multiple players in on product designs and roadmaps. But at some point the CEO owns the success or failure of future Apple products. In a letter to employees posted on Ars Technica, Cook said that the core values of the company won't change. Jobs created a unique culture that will remain. "I cherish and celebrate Apple's unique principles and values. Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that—it is in our DNA," said Cook.

The conventional view is that the Cook era will come in about five years. At that point, grading Cook will be easier.

Analysts say that Jobs' vision and associated product roadmaps for Apple most likely carry out about five years perhaps longer. Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, said:

We believe Tim Cook will carry out a long-term (5-year) roadmap that he and Jobs jointly established, including several iterations of Apple's existing products as well as new categories, like an Apple Television as soon as late 2012.

Jefferies analyst Peter Misek wrote:

We believe Steve Jobs has his fingerprints on Apple products for the next two years. In the near term, we believe the company will release a new iPhone and enter China with a low-cost iPhone. We see the company releasing an LTE iPhone and also gradually converging its iOS and Mac products. We also continue to believe that Jobs will introduce another revolutionary product such as an iTV or something video-related before his final departure from the company. Though many of the future products may be conceptual at this we believe Steve Jobs' vision of the Apple ecosystem goes beyond five years.

That view creates on interesting management case study. When Apple actually launches TVs Cook will be on the hook for the execution. But it will be Jobs' product vision. Apple rolls out iPad 6 in a few years and will Cook or Jobs' own the vision?

In other words, Cook takes over the company, but may be seen as the operational guru before he gets credit for great products, cutting edge designs and all the perks that go with them. Cook will be widely underestimated at first.

For other CEOs, the urge to make an imprint on a company as its new leader may be irresistible. But Cook doesn't seem like the egomaniac type. He seems suited to pick up the baton from Jobs.

We'll eventually know what traits mark Cook's Apple, but it may take years for those qualities to surface. Along the way Cook will have to manage a bevy of risks ranging from brain drain to execution. Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi:

We believe that Steve Jobs has had a unique and powerful imprint on Apple that is irreplaceable by anyone, and that longer term (2+ years out), his full time absence could undermine the performance of the company. We believe that it is hard to imagine a replacement for Jobs' vision, his unparalleled and charismatic marketing leadership and his ability to drive the company to exacting standards and products. While we do expect that Jobs will be able to exert some influence on the company in his position as Chairman, we believe that as CEO, Jobs played an even larger role beyond product design – in marketing, deal negotiation and release planning – than most investors may realize.

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