Could John Ternus equal Tim Cook and Steve Jobs as Apple CEO?


John Ternus, Apple senior vice president of Hardware Engineering
This might be Apple's next CEO. Does he have what it takes?
Screenshot: Apple

John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, reportedly sits at the top of the list to step into Tim Cook’s shoes when the current Apple CEO steps down.

But the real question is, does Ternus have what it takes to fill a role that Steve Jobs once did so brilliantly?

Apple CEO is an epic job

Ever since Steve Jobs’ spectacular run at the helm of Apple, the role of CEO has taken on an almost mythical importance at the company.

It makes sense: Jobs managed the teams that came up with breakthrough products like the Macintosh, iPod and iPhone. And when the mercurial Apple co-founder died in 2011, many feared that Apple would, too.

However, Cook, Jobs’ right-hand man, found a way to expand Apple’s success by pushing incremental improvements in products while ramping up revenue from services like iCloud and Apple Music. His tenure brought a 1,200% increase in Apple’s value on the stock market.

Cook had less success on the world-changing new device front, however. The Apple Watch became a hit, and AirPods made wireless earbuds a hot commodity. But the Apple Vision Pro headset seems like an uncertain bet on the future of computing, and the “secret” Apple car project is officially dead.

Tim Cook’s clock as CEO is ticking down

Love him or hate him, Tim Cook surely won’t be Apple CEO for another decade. He is 63 years old, and while Cook is not expected to step down soon, that day is coming.

Who will succeed Cook to become Apple’s next CEO? Apple reportedly has a plan … two of them, actually. Plan A kicks in if Cook steps off the wrong curb (his words, not mine) in the near future. Plan B goes into effect if Cook hangs around for a few more years, enabling a well-managed handoff to his successor.

Apple operations chief Jeff Williams is Plan A. He seems to be the logical choice to be the next CEO, except that he’s 61 years old. That’s means he would be unlikely to take the top spot for more than a few years. But he could take over as CEO if Apple needed one tomorrow.

That makes John Ternus Plan B. He’s the person most likely to take over for Cook for the long haul, according to a Wednesday report from Bloomberg that’s loaded with Apple palace intrigue. For one thing, he’s more than a decade younger than the current chief executive and Williams.

Plus, Ternus has the support of the current head honcho.

“Tim likes him a lot, because he can give a good presentation, he’s very mild-mannered, never puts anything into an email that is controversial and is a very reticent decision-maker,” a source inside Apple told Bloomberg.

Meet John Ternus

Thankfully, Ternus has more going for him than good deportment. He’s already in charge of a significant percentage of Apple products. His official company bio says:

“John joined Apple’s Product Design team in 2001 and has been a vice president of Hardware Engineering since 2013. Throughout his tenure at Apple, John has overseen hardware engineering work on a variety of groundbreaking products including every generation and model of iPad, the latest iPhone lineup, and AirPods. He has been a key leader in the ongoing transition of the Mac to Apple silicon.”

That makes him the equal and opposite of Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering.

Anyone needing to put a face to the name need only watch the video for the recent “Let Loose” event. Cook opened and closed the event, but Ternus acted as master of ceremonies.

Big questions remain. If Ternus becomes the next Apple CEO, can he continue Cook’s successful approach? Even more importantly, does he have Steve Jobs’ vision to create the next big project that Apple fans need — even if they don’t know it yet?

As the Bloomberg article mentioned, Ternus “isn’t without detractors.” Some anonymous sources questioned the vision and the gravitas of the potential next Apple CEO:

Some at Apple say he’s a political operator who isn’t respected by some of the company’s top engineers, who say he doesn’t focus on future bets, make bold technology acquisitions or differentiate himself as an innovator. Skeptics also point out that Ternus hasn’t been central to many of Apple’s biggest product moves in recent years. He was involved only in later generations of the Apple Watch, for instance, and hasn’t done enough to help the company develop a successful smart-home strategy. Other executives, not Ternus, conceived of Apple’s recent foray into personal robotics, though he now runs it alongside Apple’s head of artificial intelligence. While Ternus helped lead the integration of Apple’s own chips into Macs, company executives say the switch away from Intel Corp. could have happened years earlier.

Perhaps most significantly, Ternus had limited involvement in two of Apple’s most ambitious recent projects: the Vision Pro headset and the self-driving car. Of course, the car project was a failure, and the headset hasn’t yet proved it will propel Apple into the future, so it’s not clear whether Ternus’ distance from those projects will hurt or benefit his reputation over time. He’s also had some misses, including on his first marquee feature after taking over the Mac: the Touch Bar, a touchscreen display above the MacBook Pro keyboard that confused customers and was discontinued after five years.

“They got a real big problem,” said another anonymous source, described as “a person close to Apple” by Bloomberg. “Ternus is a great guy, but he’s honestly really junior. He comes off as just one of the guys in the room, not like a refined executive or a person in charge. Being the CEO of a multitrillion-dollar company, you better command presence in the room.”

Still, a major player in Cupertino reportedly thinks Ternus makes a logical choice to lead Apple into the future.

“Eddy Cue, the Apple executive known as Cook’s closest confidant, has privately told colleagues that Ternus should be the next CEO, according to a person with knowledge of the matter,” Bloomberg reported.

Time will tell.

Lewis Wallace contributed to this article.


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