How Steve Jobs Ran Apple

Few CEOs are as identified with their companies as Steve Jobs with Apple. He helped launch some of Apple's most successful and influential products, but at times, his approach has been characterized as abrasive. CNET's Brian Cooley discusses Job's significance and leadership style.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host: The world woke up this morning to learn that Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, is stepping down as CEO. Jobs has ongoing health issues stemming from a rare form of pancreatic cancer. Jobs and Apple have redefined computers and cell phones and digital music players and tablet computers. But Jobs is also a very polarizing figure whose management style rubbed many the wrong way. In a few moments, Brian Cooley of CNET will join us to help us understand who is Steve Jobs and what he has meant to Apple.

But we also want to hear from you. If you're a user of Apple products, how have they changed the way you listen and watch and work and play? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. You can email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Brian Cooley joins us now from the studios of CNET in San Francisco, where he's editor at large. Brian Cooley, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN COOLEY: Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So why is this different from any other announcement about a CEO stepping down?

COOLEY: Well, most of the time, consumers don't know or care who the CEO is of any company they patronize, the CEO of their car company or the company where they buy their clothing from, couldn't care less. In this case, Steve Jobs is aligned and basically synonymous with Apple's products, Apple's image, Apple's message about how you live in this digital age.

ROBERTS: And who is responsible for that close alignment? Is it Jobs himself? Was it a P.R. decision by Apple?

COOLEY: Oh, it's because Jobs came back after getting handed his hat. Remember, he founded the company and then was fired from it. He came back with a whole different perspective on I'm going to follow my gut. I tried to please my board and my customers and all these various dilute factions. You know what, I ended up getting myself caught in the middle where I didn't stand for anything strong enough to hold onto my vision.

He came back and said it's about my vision. I've got the chops, and he does. He has the technical expertise to be that person and to hang on to his vision; makes him a tough guy to work for by all indications that we have and very demanding and requiring people and products be at pretty much the perfect level before they're released or before they're kept on the payroll. That said, that's part of him having gone through the ringer and come back as Steve Jobs II.

ROBERTS: And if he came back with this clear vision, how would you characterize that? What is his vision?

COOLEY: Well, his vision is not about products. It's not about iPhones and iPads. Those are just the carriers of his vision. His vision is a new way of living with media and entertainment and communications at the core of it in ways that are digitally enabled by his products. But you notice when he goes on stage with a new iPhone or a new iPad, it's not really about that product. Yeah. He goes through that, and it's new, and it's very sexy and cool. But it's all about showing you what you do with it that it's easy and that it's going to work for you. And that's really a thing that's all about confidence. That's probably the main product that Apple offers. Compared to its competitors, they sell confidence, not just electronics.

ROBERTS: But also at those, you know, famous demos of the new product, a lot of it is about Steve Jobs. He's there. You know, he's this skinny guy in the black mock turtleneck, and, you know, he's instantly recognizable. Would that message have the same impact from a different presenter?

COOLEY: You know, you don't want to see some guy up there in a suit. That's not the image of Apple. That's not Silicon Valley. That's not California. That's not the ethic of the West. That's not even this unique image of Apple as a product of the United States, all of these things. And I meet with lots of people in the technology space from all the world and all over this country. And there's a unique aspect to where Apple is from. That's why on the back of that product it may say made in China but it also says designed in California.

This is something that you're not going to replace. I don't think Apple is going to try and go drop someone else, literally or figuratively, into Steve's clothes. That doesn't work. This is the biggest challenge they face is how do they move forward without trying to replace him directly, which is impossible, but to keep his ethos in the company distributed among the new leaders, not just one leader.

ROBERTS: Well, I want to get to the question of succession in a minute, but first, you mentioned that he could be tough to work for. What are the sort of in-the-trenches Apple stories about that? Why is he a tough manager?

COOLEY: Well, he and stories about him and Larry Ellison and Bill Gates and the most successful personality-oriented leaders in technology all have a fairly common ring is that they stay involved in the product process long after they don't have to. When they have that C-level title, they're still going to product meetings regularly and calling people out - designers and engineers and others - on their ideas, saying wait a minute. No, that doesn't work, that isn't right. I know because I'm a craftsman in this industry as well.

Jobs was a computer developer when Apple started. He's not some guy who got hired from some other company because of his business acumen. That's your traditional CEO, someone who's not in the guild of what his company does but runs the company well. But Jobs is one of those in this industry and others, there's not many of them, who can get in there and say, no, wrong. Go do it again. And he is, shall we say to be polite, unfiltered in his comments about things that he thinks are not at 99.99 percent perfection before they're released.

ROBERTS: Well, it sounds like what you're describing is someone who's - you know, he's not Colonel Sanders, he's not, sort of, a cartoon figurehead who's associated with the product. He's actually working to make the product better, which makes the question of succession more difficult.

COOLEY: Absolutely. This is the biggest challenge they face, is they are not going to replace him directly, so they have Tim Cook who's the new CEO. They have Jonathan Ive, who I called their VP of lust. He's the guy that designs the physical product they (unintelligible) .

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: I hope that's not his business card.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COOLEY: I do too. In Apple, it might be. He's the guy who does their industrial design. When you hold Apple products in their hands - in your hand, that's Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs largely. And then you've also Phil Schiller, very capable head of marketing. And they recently lost their head of retail to J.C. Penney, as I recall. That's an interesting note here, is how they may replace that position because Steve Jobs had an enormous impact on their stores, which are an exceedingly successful part of Apple and big differentiator. No one else in their industry does that.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Tracy(ph) in Waycross, Georgia. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TRACY: Hello. Hello?

ROBERTS: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, Tracy.

TRACY: Yes. I wasn't a big fan of the Apple product until I actually became a user. And I'll tell you, it is - it transcends everything that is going on in the electronic world. I think the world is better because of this product. I'm a college student and I also use it as well for job and it makes - the application makes it a lot easier to communicate with the school and also to communicate with my co-workers with iPhone and the iPod Touch and with the iPad 2, as well.

ROBERTS: Tracy, thanks for your call. You know, I think, Brian Cooley, that Tracy's call shows this evolution from the time when Apple meant, you know, this tiny percentage of PCs, of Mac geeks who were almost militant and cultish in their, you know, superiority to Microsoft products. And they were - they might have been right, but they weren't popular.

COOLEY: Right.

ROBERTS: And the whole i-phenomenon has changed that completely.

COOLEY: That's exactly right. The i-phenomenon is the era, Rebecca, that Steve Jobs who ushered in when he came back for his second tour of duty, because the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, '96, '97. And he came back with the original iMac, which was that kind of big plump one back when they still had CRT screens. It was in that color they called bondi blue. We'd never seen a machine like that that was oriented towards the Internet, had a simple, clear focus. Here is your Internet computer at, of course, the time when the Internet was getting red hot. And then you get iPod, iPhone, iPad and iTunes, which ties them all together, the whole secret sauce, if you will, that Apple has that their competitors don't. But what's going on here is that Apple is selling the function more than the device.

And I think that's what Tracy was mentioning as well. He may have looked at the products from the outside and said, eh, smartphone. I can get another kind of smartphone. They all do the same thing. But once you get an Apple product, they tend to be very satisfying for all but the most technically-demanding users who may want greater flexibility, greater hack-ability, more choice. Apple does tend to control things in their environment. They have the operating system, the hardware. They want to sell you all the media, and they filter all the apps.

ROBERTS: We've got email from Jim in Wichita who says: Around 1982, I got an Apple IIc, a small computer that's not much bigger than today's laptop, but it had a small one color, green, monitor. They promised that before long there'd be an accompanying flat screen that would fold down over the top of the computer. They never did that. But last year, I got a Mac Air, which is pretty amazing. I never could have imagined this computer back then. I hope Apple can keep coming up with the great products they're known for.

So from an Apple IIc to a Mac Air, I mean, that's a pretty good 30 years.

COOLEY: And now, as of some research I saw just a week or two ago, Apple is now the largest maker, the largest vendor of mobile computers - that's laptops, netbooks, notebooks and tablets. When you roll those all together, they're number one ahead of Hewlett-Packard, which is number two, and they're ahead by a significant margin of market share. This is amazing, because as you mentioned, this used to be a five percent company. They had five percent market share of computers for ages. That's the best Apple could do and people sneered at them and said, yeah, that's cute, but you know what? They're not player. That's changing.

The computers we use today are mobile devices and Apple is now number one in mobile computers. Over time, they have become a mainstream player. Although, I got to tell you, in a lot of circles, they still work to scrub off that old image of being niche and quirky and, kind of, for designers or for the rest of us.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Although, you know, there is kind of a chicken-and-egg question about, do people use things they way Apple wants them to now because Apple built them well or do - was Apple ahead of the curve knowing and anticipating what people would want and supplying the products for them?

COOLEY: Increasingly, Apple is, shall we say, playing ball with the overall ecosystem of technology in our lives, and that started with the iPhone. That was the first time Apple had to partner with someone publicly. They had to go to AT&T and work with a carrier, and carriers have a lot of sway over the phones that they offer. Now, they had less sway in the case of working with Apple, because Apple was already red-hot as a company. But now, they're working with Verizon, and that will eventually be a T-Mobile and Sprint offering, as the rumors go.

And they've also had to work with Hollywood and that's been a prickly relationship, because they have seen how Apple took over the music industry digitally. And the movie studios and television production companies are saying, okay, we're going to be more even going forward in this deal. You're not going to come in and run the visual space. And that's where, right now, Apple and many companies are trying to unlock the vaults of Hollywood and of television to be available on all these digital devices - I mean, really, truly available. And that's where their - Apple is losing their dealmaker-in-chief, perhaps.

You know, Jobs is not going to be in a day-to-day-trenches role and yet, he could really be used right now in Hollywood cutting those deals. When he walks into a boardroom, people listen.

ROBERTS: My guest is Brian Cooley, editor-at-large for CNET. We are talking about the legacies of Steve Jobs after his announcement today he will step down as CEO of Apple for health reasons. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take a call from Warren in Johnson City, Tennessee. Warren, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

WARREN: Hi. Long time listener, first time caller. Thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure. Welcome to the show.

WARREN: Thank you. Well, I've - I had an iPod for a number of years and it absolutely has changed the way I listen to NPR. I subscribe to a number of podcasts, and can listen to them on demand, and it's just super-convenient to have them right there in my pocket. And I'm about to spend my senior year of college in Barcelona, and it makes me relax to know that I can take NPR with me. Because as long as I have the Internet, I have iTunes and can just synch my iPod straight to my NPR library. And like Brian was saying, Apple has totally revolutionized the way electronics are marketed. I work as a brand ambassador for Samsung selling the Galaxy Tab in electronic stores, which is a competitive product, but over and over and over, I saw people going immediately to the iPod knowing what apps to press and just starting to play.

ROBERTS: Warren, thanks for your call and thanks for the plug.

COOLEY: This is an interesting point, Rebecca, that he makes in that Apple gets a lot of credit, not totally unduly, but a lot of credit for things that they didn't necessarily start or invent. Podcasting is not an Apple invention, but it took the name from the iPod and a lot of folks think that Apple invented podcast. In fact, it was former MTV VJ Adam Curry, who was one of the guys who got that going, but the name kind of got mingled.

They didn't invent the smartphone. They were quite late on the smartphone. The Palm Treo went ahead of that way before Apple was in the game, and the same thing for MP3 players. The iPod was one of the last to go on the market, far from first, but what they do is they packaged together the use case and present that to you and you say, oh, I get it. That's how I use it. Don't sell me a product, sell me an experience, and that's where Apple ends up getting ahead.

ROBERTS: Well, that is echoed in this email from Antoine(ph), who says out there in San Jose: I recently read an article in the local newspaper about a former Apple employee who worked closely with Jobs. He said something very interesting. He said Apple does not make the best products. Apple makes the easiest to use products. There are music players and phones that can do more than the iPod and iPhone, but it doesn't mean much if people can't use those products.

COOLEY: Yeah, best is a funny term. Best in what way? The most capable, yes, Apple seldom makes the most capable product in terms of, does it have the most connections, the most bells and whistles, the most parts of potential. A lot of companies sell you a toolbox. They sell you a laptop that has everything in there, and you have to kind of figure it out a little more than with an Apple product that may have less, but it's focused. So, yes, Apple absolutely tends to churn out products that do less, their smartphones and their media players.

Steve Jobs didn't even want a color screen on the iPod for years but - and other companies went there first. Same thing goes for the iPhone. Smartphones were ahead of that and smartphones had cameras before the iPhone had good camera technology, iPad as well didn't have cameras when it launched, and that wasn't hard to do. They hold back on a lot of things that other companies offer you sooner.

ROBERTS: We have email from Lisa(ph) in Rochester, Minnesota who says: Steve Jobs' departure is tantamount to Martha Stewart, Oprah or Bill Gates leaving their organizations that they've cultivated and run with a meticulous eye for detail. I'm worried that Apple will never be the same.

COOLEY: I am too. I don't think that Apple will be the same, that doesn't mean that I can gauge to what degree of positive or negative stray it will have, but you can't replace what Steve Jobs does. It's a fool's errand to try to. So what the company has to rely on now is that they have a new CEO, Tim Cook, from within. That's a key. To go out and hire an external CEO - Silicon Valley is littered with companies that ended up kind of stumbling their last big stumble, because they brought in an outsider.

ROBERTS: So what can you tell us about Tim Cook?

COOLEY: Well, Tim Cook is a master of what we call operations, running the business day to day, and especially within that, manufacturing. When he came onboard at Apple from - I believe, he was at Compaq before that. He also spent time at IBM. He said, why are we running our own factories? Let's stop that. Let's use contract manufacturers in China who build the stuff for us to exacting spec, and we get a much more responsive supply chain, we can make changes sooner, we can have better margins by having lower cost of making the products, and we can control the inventory better, all this kind of inside baseball that makes a company a Wall Street darling. And that's a big part of Apple's success. A lot of what they do they do because they turn out money like a cash machine. You get a lot of carte blanche and a lot of spaces when you do that.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, the good ops guys, necessarily the charismatic figurehead to lead you into the next chapter.

COOLEY: No, nothing tells us that Tim Cook is visionary like Steve Jobs. The caveat to that is, how could you ever shine that way in the shadow of Steve Jobs? So I'd say it's an open question now that the sunlight is on him. Let's see what he blossoms into, but I don't think that's really him MO, especially a man in middle age. But we've got enough components at Apple that now that ethic has to live on even though the guy that forged it is not going to be there in the CEO role.

Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY and Ira Flatow will be here for a look at this week's rare East Coast earthquake. Plus, a talk with Pulitzer prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington.

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