Slowly but surely, Apple’s Cook emerges from Jobs’ shadow

Apple CEO Tim Cook D10

Apple CEO Tim Cook

It’s an impossible act to follow. No, not the gospel choir and high-school marching band that preceded Apple (s aapl) CEO Tim Cook’s appearance at D: All Things Digital. Rather, it’s the legend of Steve Jobs that Cook will be forced to confront in nearly every public appearance for quite some time.
But Cook reminded attendees Tuesday night that in the weeks before his death, Jobs urged him to remember the lessons that Walt Disney (s dis) executives learned the hard way: decisions about the future of a business can’t be made by constantly asking yourself what your predecessor would have done.
In an otherwise boring talk (he, of course, didn’t announce any new Apple products and disarmed any serious questions from Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher with the poise of a politician) Cook emerged as an almost anti-Jobs: calm, cool, and collected, with a humble “aw-shucks” attitude that fit perfectly with his mild Southern drawl.
Cook is not exactly a stranger. He’s been with Apple for 14 years and has long represented the company before financial analysts on quarterly earnings calls. But Tuesday marked only the second extended interview session he’s granted since becoming the leader of the epicenter of the tech industry. He reinforced what little we know about his style and revealed a few new things during the hour-plus session beside the Pacific in Rancho Palos Verdes.

  • He’s not unemotional, but he is definitely not a disciple of the “insanely great/total shit” dichotomy that seemed to govern Jobs’ approach to life. For example, Cook seems to really want to put the mobile patent mess behind him, calling it “a pain in the ass” and saying “It’s overhead. It’s overhead that I wish didn’t exist. If we could find a way to settle this…,” he said, trailing off. But he also spent about as much time as he did on any single topic criticizing those who use so-called “standards-essential patents” to try and extract royalties from others, a clear dig at Motorola’s (and by extension, Google’s) patent strategy.
  • He’s polite but not afraid to throw elbows. One of the more amusing exchanges of the evening was between Cook and Henrique De Castro, one of Google’s (s goog) top advertising executives, regarding Apple’s iAd, a strategy that has not exactly set the advertising world on fire. De Castro wondered how iAd fit into Apple’s strategy to “focus” on doing a few things very well. Cook quipped, “So, you want me to get out of the advertising business. I hope the FTC isn’t in the room.” Mossberg quickly pointed out that as it happened, Jonathan Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and someone with a keen interest in Google’s online advertising dominance, was in the room and is scheduled to speak Thursday morning. Did Cook know that? Who knows. But he successfully threw a Googler’s question about a rare Apple stumble back in De Castro’s face, which will undoubtedly play well with the troops back in Cupertino.
  • He’s perhaps even more skilled with the media than Jobs. Jobs, of course, was famous for his “reality-distortion field” and had a way of disarming questioners with sheer intensity. Cook is a Southern gentleman, or at least that’s the role he plays in public. He wasn’t confronted with anything too difficult Tuesday night, but he fielded pointed questions from Mossberg, Swisher, and the audience with a comfort that implied he’d been putting on these kinds of performances for years, as opposed to months. Cook won’t be controversial, and it’s hard to imagine him writing the types of “Letters from Steve” that set industries afire, but maybe that’s just what a more mature Apple needs.

Cook has one of the most difficult jobs in American business. If Apple continues its remarkable run of success, it’s because Jobs left him with all the tools. If Apple stumbles, it’s because Cook failed to heed the lessons Jobs tried so hard to impart.
What’s interesting about Cook is that he appears not to care. If Jobs was Apple’s lead singer–the diva that made the tech industry (and the tech media) swoon and occasionally recoil while cranking out incredible art–Cook is its bass player: steady, essential, and comfortable in the spotlight without the need to be the center of attention.
At one point, Cook claimed he’s “never felt the weight of trying to be Steve.” If that’s actually true, then he’s a remarkably focused person. And as long as Apple continues to put up the kinds of numbers that it reported in April, Cook won’t have to worry about that weight.
Tuesday night was a reminder that we won’t really get to know Tim Cook until Apple confronts its first post-Jobs crisis. He gave attendees every impression that he’s a good man in a storm and that he made sure to learn as much from Jobs as he could in the short time they had left together over the last couple of years.
But we still don’t know very much about the leadership style of the man running one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Image credit Asa Mathat | All Things Digital