Report card: How has Tim Cook fared after five years as CEO?

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Cook
Tim Cook has now been officially running Apple for half a decade.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

The flip side to the news that today marks five years since Steve Jobs resigned as Apple CEO is the fact that it also marks Tim Cook’s ascendance to Apple’s top position.

So how has Cook done at the seemingly impossible task of following one of the most-revered business executives in history? Putting on our teacher hats and picking up our best red marking pens, here’s how Tim Cook’s report card reads so far.

Profitability

Apple’s profitability under Cook has been immense. Apple seemed pretty ubiquitous in 2010, Jobs’ final full year as CEO, but today it is bringing in four times that revenue. It also employs many more people, and is operating in plenty of new areas — both technologically and in terms of global markets.

Potential problems lurk with Apple’s continued growth, particularly in markets like China and India, but Cook’s supply chain expertise has successfully built on the solid foundations laid by his predecessor.

Report card: A-

iPhonese
The iPhone is still a massive seller for Apple.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Innovation

Perhaps the biggest “ding” against Cook has been the perception that he is a less innovative CEO than Jobs. Occasionally, I speak with people who say things like, “Tim Cook’s not been quite as successful as Steve Jobs, has he? Where’s the new iPhone?”

AppleMusic
Tim Cook has been busy turning Apple into a services company.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

By this, they don’t literally mean the new iPhone, of course: More new iPhone models have been launched under Cook than Jobs. Instead, they mean the new iPhone, aka the next product that will capture the world’s imagination in the same way that the iMac G3, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad did while Jobs was running Apple.

A few things are missing in this argument, though. The first is that Apple has continued to innovate under Cook. If it was purely about increasing market share, Cook could have done any number of things to grow Apple that wouldn’t require it to significantly change its products. Instead, we’ve had significant advances to the iPhone, including biometric tech like Touch ID, Force Touch, motion coprocessors, larger displays and more.

There has also been innovation in the form of Apple Pay, Apple Music, HomeKit, HealthKit and other similar new arrivals, which are shifting Apple’s business model away from one purely based on hardware and toward one based on services. Judging by Apple’s most recent better-than-expected quarterly earnings report, this strategic pivot seems to be paying off.

In the future, there’s also the promise of an Apple Car and improved Apple Watch (the latter the first new product line to launch under Cook). Are either of these likely to supplant the iPhone on Apple’s revenue sheets? Almost certainly not, but they’re setting up pieces that will define Apple over the coming years.

Finally, it’s worth pointing that — as undisputedly great as Jobs’ stint as Apple CEO was — it took him a half-decade at the helm before groundbreaking new products started arriving seemingly every year. The iPod arrived four years into Jobs’ second reign, iTunes Store after five, iPhone after 10, and the iPad after 13.

In other words, the jury’s still out on Cook’s final contribution to Apple — but he’s certainly not lagging too far behind.

Report card: B+

Social commitment

Steve Jobs always viewed Apple’s role in making the world a better place as being about building insanely great products. Tim Cook seems to agree on the products front, but has also embraced Apple’s dominant position to make the company a global “force for good.”

That means focusing on the environment, with Cook’s Apple managing to transition from one of Greenpeace’s most-criticized to its most-loved companies. In addition to investing in renewable energy in Apple’s data centers and retail stores back home in the U.S., Cook has also proven successful at pushing similar initiatives overseas, even in markets that haven’t always prized sustainability.

campus
Sustainability is a key theme of Apple’s forthcoming Apple 2 campus.
Photo: Apple

Cook has also continued to build on Apple’s reputation as a company that makes products usable by those with disabilities, and he’s been outspoken on social issues like improving working conditions in Apple’s supply chain, diversity in employment and, particularly, LGBT rights.

Usually calm and collected, Apple’s social commitment is what gets Cook most fired up. In one notable incident, he lashed out at shortsighted, bottom-line-driven investors during an annual shareholders meeting, telling them to “get out of [Apple] stock” if they only value return on investment and nothing else.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI,” he said.

Report card: A+

Crisis management

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Apple has been criticized for its tax structure.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Any company with Apple’s name recognition and deep pockets is going to find itself attacked from a variety of directions. Steve Jobs was one of the most beloved business leaders in history, but his occasional arrogance saw Apple probed about illegal anti-poaching agreements with other tech companies, the iBooks saga, a scandal centered on stock option backdating and more.

Under Cook, Apple has contended with consumer issues like the iPhone 6 Plus’ “bendgate,” a PR battle with the FBI over privacy, and — perhaps most notably of all — continued investigations concerning Apple’s overseas cash pile and the tax paid (or not paid) on it.

Cook doesn’t possess Jobs’ effortless charisma, but he has done a good job of defending Apple’s practices and decisions. Whether the company is ultimately able to repatriate its overseas cash pile could be one of Cook’s lasting legacies as CEO.

Report card: B+

How do you think Tim Cook has fared as Apple CEO? Make sure you leave your thoughts and comments below.