It has not been a good week to be Tim Cook
Last Friday, a report on Fox Business said that Apple's board was concerned about the pace of innovation at the company. That's hardly surprising. With Apple's stock having lost a third of its value over the past year, the board would be negligent not to have this kind of talk with the CEO, even Apple's CEO.
What's notable is that the news leaked to the press, turning it from an internal conversation to a stain on Cook's public image. The Fox reporter, Charlie Gasparino, repeated several times that the board was “100 percent behind” Cook, but added: “Every time I hear, ‘The board is concerned,’ it’s always the starting point for, ‘Is this the right guy for the job?’”
Early this week, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison sat down with Charlie Rose and began dishing on other CEOs. Ellison didn't even mention Cook explicitly. After praising Steve Jobs (“He was our Edison. He was our Picasso.”), Ellison drew a crude Apple stock chart in the air: “We saw Apple with Steve Jobs” (traces a line ascending slowly up), “now, we're going to see Apple without Steve Jobs” (reverses line in a steep plunge).
In a way, this is just Larry being Larry. But the dig at Cook had an extra twist when the current CEO of Apple was referred to simply as “without Steve Jobs.” That's the albatross that has hung around Tim Cook's neck since Jobs died in October 2011: He's not Steve Jobs.
Nevermind that Cook had been acting as CEO since January 2011. Or that for the nine months he led the company before Jobs' death, Apple's stock rose 24 percent. Or that Cook had served as Apple's chief operating officer for four years previously, making him the best-qualified person to lead Apple after Jobs. Or that Jobs' vision of personal computing didn't pass with him, but remains a part of the company's culture. Cook was not Jobs, and that was that. It was like Mozart died and left Salieri writing his music.
Tuesday brought the most damaging indignity for Tim Cook: Carl Icahn said he built up a large position in Apple and that he had had a “nice conversation” with Tim Cook about increasing buybacks of Apple shares. This in itself is unwelcome news. Calling a conversation with Icahn nice is like saying a crocodile is grinning as he eats his meal.
Icahn's brand of shareholder activism used to have a mixed record at technology companies, but he's recently done well with investments in Yahoo and Netflix, and he's putting up a fierce fight in his battle over Dell. Above all, he is becoming a master of managing his message in the media, advancing his agenda even when he's belligerent. So when Icahn tweeted about his conversation with Cook, it looked to the world like a done deal. It looked like Cook was ready to meekly comply.
Here was an investor who owned around a billion dollars of a company valued at $450 billion -- institutional investors like Vanguard and BlackRock own much larger positions that are valued around $15 billion or $20 billion -- and the CEO of what may still be the most influential company in Silicon Valley was on the phone to listen to his politely couched demands. But such is the media cachet of Carl Icahn that his two tweets drove Apple's stock up nearly 5 percent in a matter of minutes.
Icahn was shrewd to announce his Apple position on Twitter. Even though he had only 10 earlier tweets in his account, Icahn ensured his framing of the situation would be retweeted into an instant meme. Cook had no response on Twitter, nothing to counter the perception he was being pushed around by Icahn. When Apple issued a statement later, it was the media outlets that tweeted it.
Some observers have questioned what exactly Icahn is hoping to gain from taking on Apple. UBS analyst Steve Milunovich said a larger buyback was "unlikely," since Apple is buying back 5 percent of its share annually. "There doesn't appear to be much to agitate for aside from a larger buyback unless Icahn thinks Cook isn't doing a good job," Milunovich wrote.
There it is again -- the not-Steve-Jobs thing. The idea, put forth by Gasparino and Ellison, that not only is Cook not Jobs, he's not doing a good job at replacing Jobs. It may well be that Icahn is simply value-hunting, as he did with Netflix. When Icahn bought into Netflix, the company was shifting to an original-programming model that has revived its shares. Apple will be releasing new products this fall and new product categories next year. So the stock may well rebound in coming quarters. And if it doesn't the additional buybacks and dividends could offer a handy insurance policy.
So Icahn is likely to come out ahead, as are Apple shareholders who have weathered a rough year. The causalty is likely to be Tim Cook, or at least his public image. Steve Jobs, after all, was famously averse to offering any dividends or buybacks, let alone adding to programs already viewed by Wall Street as generous. This idea that Cook is unfit to lead Apple could start to gather steam.
I've always thought the not-Steve-Jobs label was a little unfair, and I think the notion that someone else should run the company is still too premature. More than many leaders in the technology industry, Apple is a hardware company, subject to the ups and down in profits as product cycles come and go.
It's still to early to say that in one year, Apple has gone from being the biggest innovator in Silicon Valley to a washed-up tech giant. Its thousands of engineers and designers are among the best, and talking as if the company is out of market-defining products is the same as saying these people have grown complacent with mediocre performance. Maybe that will happen with Apple in time, but it won't happen in the course of a year.
Tim Cook is going to have a tricky year ahead, introducing low-cost versions of existing products, perfecting new ones that could create product categories, dealing with investors clamoring for the company to increase its debt. But in tech, more than most industries, the CEO is a more than a chief officer. The CEO is a public face, projecting an image of the company for the public. In that sense, Cook is no Jobs. But popular perception notwithstanding, he's still the best executive capable of running the company.