Review of “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul” by Tripp Mickle
No wonder Apple made money under Jobs – tons. What seems surprising, at least in retrospect, is that this era was just a prelude to the company’s recent decade-long bull run. When Jobs died of cancer in 2011, his hand-picked successor, chief executive Tim Cook, wrote to all employees, “We will honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work he loved so much. Wall Street had doubts, but Cook was true to his word. In the years since, the company has consistently rolled out improvements to phones and introduced new devices and services. By transforming into a global colossus – a “nation-state,” as Tripp Mickle, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who recently joined The New York Times, aptly calls it in his new book, “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul” — Apple has become one of the most successful business enterprises in the history of the world.
Mickle’s exploration of the company’s last decade shows us what happened after Jobs died, as Ive and Cook built on the success of the iPhone. A gripping tale that’s impressively reported – a true journalistic achievement in light of Apple’s culture of secrecy – “After Steve” takes readers deep into the monolithic enterprise. Mickle’s characterization of the evolution of Apple and its management sometimes seems simplistic. Yet his book helps us see, in stark detail, why Apple is Apple—that is, how the company has mastered the process of making its devices so welcoming and accessible, even though they contain the technologies most complex modern imaginable.
“After Steve” hinges on the claim that Apple’s success is hard to grasp without understanding the chemistry — and, often, tension — between the two men who led the company after 2011. Small-town native from Alabama, Cook attended Auburn, and early in his career excelled in operations management at IBM and Compaq before joining Apple. Brilliant, aloof and unflappable, Cook was something of an anti-Jobs. He was respectful in his bearing and modest in his tastes. For years, Cook preferred to live in a small apartment near the Apple campus and fly commercial rather than corporate jets. He dutifully woke up at 4 a.m. to check sales reports. He enjoyed going to the gym and hiking in nature, sometimes alone. And aside from his brave public statement that he’s gay — in Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014 — he’s preferred not to draw too much attention to himself.
And yet, in the office, Cook was a dynamo. He seemed able to maintain in his working memory a database of the company’s vast operations and supply chains, and his colleagues trembled with fear during his incessant questioning in meetings. Nobody worked harder; no one knew more about Apple’s corporate circuits. No one has understood better how to increase profits.
I lived a different life in the same building, floating in the middle of a world of dreamy aesthetes. During Jobs’ reign, I created an autonomous design unit within the company that defined Apple’s aspirations and products. At the time of Jobs’ death, he was arguably among the most powerful executives in the company, and stirring up his displeasure — by talking, say, about budgets — could lead to his dismissal. Some of the best parts of “After Steve” relate to Ive’s elegant and secretive design works, where his team, “a group of Renaissance men dedicated to art and invention,” never compromise. That’s because, with iPhone profits skyrocketing, they didn’t have to.
Apple designers set their own hours and sip rare coffees. They lived “like rock stars,” says Mickle – always drinking champagne and visiting the best restaurants. (They apparently also cached a stash of drugs.) I retained a serene exterior that belied a fierce and controlling nature. “He projected the outward personality of a distinguished Briton,” Mickle tells us, “unpretentious, graceful and sensitive, but underneath was the drive, ambition and determination of a perfectionist who wanted to make products exactly as he imagined them.”
We kind of remember what happened next, don’t we? In 2015, Apple, under Ive’s meticulous leadership, launched a risky new product called the Apple Watch, which aimed to bring the sparkle of fashion to the tech world. The watch’s reception was lukewarm, but over time, as the watch’s health apps and battery life improved, so did its sales. In the meantime, Cook was focusing on building huge markets in China and softening Donald Trump’s impulses to cut overseas manufacturing on which Apple depends. Equally important, Cook began to see Apple’s potential in services – apps, music streaming and TV shows – rather than new products. The pipeline of gadgets hasn’t dried up (there are AirPods for sale, for example), but it increasingly looks like the iPhone, with over a billion sold by 2016, is a one-of-a-kind product.
This is where the story gets heavy. As Cook moved forward, I struggled with burnout. And as Apple’s stock price rose, I moved away from what he saw as an increasingly profit-driven business. Working part-time, he stopped coming to the office and instead focused on designing Apple’s new headquarters. One of his tasks was to search the world for a type of glass so clear that it would, at least according to Ive, bring more happiness to Apple employees. This project ultimately cost as much as $1 billion, Mickle estimates, and was “perhaps the largest glass order in history.” Still, that seems to have been Ive’s quirky last hurrah. In 2019, with Apple’s headquarters completed, he resigned. Mickle notes: “Cook, who lived to work, had asked Ive to do the same. He had taken more from the artist than the artist had to give.
You might be wondering if Apple’s history is as tidy as it sounds. Even in the absence of its chief designer, Apple continued to sell more and more stuff. And for those of us on the outside, not much has changed: the company’s product line has remained sleek, attractive and reliable. The argument in “After Steve” is that Apple’s growth and Ive’s alienation is what has robbed this once-creative and unusual great American company of its soul. But to buy into that idea, you have to believe that a company has a soul – a dubious assumption, I think, which seems tantamount to accepting Jobs’ old talk that suggested that Apple was more than a company that sold things to earn money. Rather, it was something closer to a spiritual ideal.
That was never true, of course. And near the end of Mickle’s book, that notion—Apple as a fallen company and a fallen ideal—detracts from an otherwise compelling narrative. Additionally, while the differences between Ive, the creative thinker, and Cook, the profit-driven technocrat, are undoubtedly real, readers may find the lines Mickle draws conceptually problematic. The implication that Cook destroyed the startup culture of Apple, for example, may seem naive to business-savvy readers, who will see him – correctly, I believe – as a principled CEO who did a hard job of living up to the traditions of its business and looking to the demands of consumers, employees and Wall Street. And I suspect many readers will find it hard to sympathize with Ive, who seems less of the edgy artist and corporate conscience, as we are perhaps supposed to think (a “last-day Leonardo da Vinci”, as Mickle sadly describes him), than a gifted industrial designer with an intuitive sense for the mass market and a predilection for middlebrow culture, like the Coldplay band.
Over the years, moreover, it’s appalling to see Ive’s fixation on luxury grow. It’s not just champagne and famous friends; it’s Hawaii customs, the endless trips to Europe, the stupid $300,000 Bentley with driver. Too often, I look less like a visionary than a sybarite. And sometimes his behavior is repugnant, like when he asks colleagues at Apple to fix the soap dispensers on the Gulfstream jet he bought from Laureen Powell-Jobs, Steve’s widow.
None of this really detracts from the immense readability of this book. And Mickle’s thematic overreach doesn’t cloud the crisp, detailed view he gives us of Apple’s inner sanctuaries. Yet “After Steve” readers would do well to remember that no matter the business, the soul is never in the equation: the balance in business between growth and creativity has always been extremely hard to find. Apple has made it easy to sell beautiful things. But really, it just looked like that.
Jon Gertner is the author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Laboratories and the Great Age of American Innovation” and “The End of the World Ice Cream: An Epic Journey Through Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.”
How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul
William Morrow. 512 pages $29.99