When Steve Jobs died, in late 2011, the consensus among Apple-watchers was that the company’s best days were behind it. Apple would no longer be able to innovate—its leaders left wondering, What would Steve do?—with the company’s fortunes suffering.
In the estimation of Tripp Mickle, author of the forthcoming book After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, only the former prognostication came true. The best innovations that Apple has been able to manage are a wristwatch-size computer and wireless headphones that fit gently into one’s ears—nothing like the revolutionary accomplishments of the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
What the critics got wrong, however, was not foreseeing that Apple would enjoy a decade of massive financial success anyway, achieving a valuation of $2 trillion and cleverly building a digital-subscriptions business on top of ever growing sales of iPhone and MacBooks.
Mickle, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, tells the story of the decade “after Steve” by focusing on his two most important successors: Tim Cook, the business-focused deputy who took over as C.E.O. when the master took ill, and Jonathan Ive, the industrial-design wizard who was able to channel the great man’s magical approach to creating gadgets.
There’s little confusion as to Mickle’s sympathies. From the get-go we see Ive through a gauzy lens. “He found inspiration in the curve of flowers and the color of tropical waters,” Mickle writes of Ive, an Englishman who got his professional start designing toilets, of all things. “When he stood among members of his team, they felt as though any problem was solvable, any breakthrough possible.”
Cook, in contrast, is a stiff intruder in Apple’s magical kingdom, and damned by faint praise: “His ascent … was a remarkable journey for the product of a small Alabama town, where a future managing a Denny’s would have been more probable than a rise to become one of the world’s most admired C.E.O.’s.”
The Cook-versus-Ive narrative is an effective, if reductive, device for telling the post-Jobs story of Apple. It injects human drama into a spot-on portrayal of a thriving, if angst-ridden, corporation.
It is no spoiler to reveal that Cook wins the battle. Apple isn’t the mystical place it once was—hence the “Lost Its Soul” portion of the subtitle—and Ive eventually quits. But Mickle argues convincingly that Cook did what needed to be done for the company to prosper, to the benefit of shareholders, employees, and himself.
This is an exhaustively reported, deeply sourced, and lively book that will delight Apple obsessives for its revealing look behind the curtain at one of the world’s most secretive companies. Mickle interviewed more than 200 current and former Apple employees, up and down the org chart.
There is a delicious level of detail on everything from Project Titan, Apple’s stillborn autonomous-electric-car effort, to the creation of the Apple Watch.
Though Ive is the hero and Cook the antihero of the story, Ive can come off as precious and Cook as formidable.
Ive once bristles “at the notion of getting into a Mercedes S-Class Sedan that was sent to pick him up at his hotel because he disliked the way the automaker bubbled the car’s frame around its rear wheels.”
Cook, in contrast, wows his own government-relations team by swatting away a U.S. Senate inquiry into Apple’s tax-avoidance schemes. “He was calm, attentive, and respectful but firm and unwavering in his defense of Apple’s tax practices,” Mickle writes. “In that moment, they saw him morph from Jobs’s default successor into the C.E.O. Apple needed.”
The book has its issues. Jobs’s biological father was from Syria, not Iran. The text can be repetitive—Mickle writes five times that Cook seldom visited Ive’s design studio, which Jobs habituated, and on four occasions that Apple people called ABC “Daddy’s network” because it was owned by Disney, whose C.E.O., Bob Iger, was on Apple’s board. The writing can also be breathy, like calling the car project “an endeavor considered to be as complex as NASA’s journey to the moon.”
Although Mickle lovingly ends his tale with Ive lounging at his San Francisco mansion, “unburdened and at peace,” the author correctly gives Cook his due, deeming his tenure “a triumph of method over magic, persistence over perfection, and improvement over revolution.”
What Steve Jobs might have done, it is clear a decade later, is now almost beside the point.
Adam Lashinsky is the former executive editor of Fortune magazine and author of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired—and Secretive—Company Really Works. Currently a freelance journalist, he is writing a biography of the late columnist and presidential speechwriter William Safire