Make no mistake: it’s Tim Cook’s Apple now

Tim Cook’s biggest challenge at post-Steve Jobs Apple(s AAPL) was supposed to be keeping together its brilliant executive leadership team. But after the failed launch of Apple Maps last month and his own hiring mistake, Cook put his own stamp on the company Monday with Apple’s biggest executive shakeup in years.

Apple fired two from its leadership team: SVP of iOS Software Scott Forstall, and SVP of Retail Operations John Browett. Sure, the company didn’t outright say it had dismissed the two men, but in the carefully crafted world of public relations, the message was clear. The move was pitched as part of a large-scale reorganization of the top leadership team’s responsibilities, and emphasized “improving collaboration” between groups at Apple, which are otherwise clearly doing a lot of things right since Cook took the helm.

Cook had made some tweaks to the team since he became permanent CEO in August of 2011 — promoting Eddy Cue from VP to SVP of Internet Software and Services right away, and in January he filled the retail operations position with Browett. But nothing like this. The decision to remove company veteran Forstall — as well as his own new hire Browett — is the boldest and most significant move Cook has made in his 14 months as chief executive.

Scott Forstall demonstrates a feature of Apple Maps. The problems with the product likely led to his ouster at Apple.

Browett clearly wasn’t working out, something predicted by many company observers, so his departure isn’t much a surprise. But Forstall’s removal would have been unthinkable just a year ago — after all, he was mentored by Jobs himself going back to their days together at NeXT in the 1990s and mentioned as a possible future CEO of Apple. Cook’s decision to let him go after a major misstep involving Maps shows that Cook is unafraid to remake Apple into a company that works for him, not just for Steve Jobs.

The Maps mess

Forstall was hired to work on Mac OS X starting in 1997. But he will be remembered for leading the development of iOS, which started out as a top-secret project within Apple to power the first iPhone. Today, the software Forstall created is on 400 million devices. And that still wasn’t enough to save his job.

Fault for the Maps debacle can be laid squarely at Forstall’s feet. As head of software for the iPhone it was his responsibility, and the poor state of the software at launch — with incomplete and sometimes wrong data, without integrated transit directions, and worst of all, without a “beta” label — was shocking to many customers. The uproar over the software’s severe shortcomings threatened to overshadow the iPhone 5 launch, although the device appears to be selling well. Such events are usually publicity boons for Apple, but instead of simply reveling in yet another successful device launch, just a week later Cook was forced to publicly apologize for Maps.

Not only was Cook unafraid of getting rid of a Jobs’ protégé, he also doesn’t appear to mind admitting he made a huge mistake. Browett’s tenure leading Apple’s retail empire lasted less than nine months. Cook was the one who signed off on Browett’s hire, and he did so despite the obvious cultural mismatch identifiable by anyone who’d shopped at a Dixon’s in the U.K. before: the discount electronics retailer with middling customer service seemed the polar opposite of Apple Stores. The failure of Browett is clearly Cook’s fault. But to his credit, he didn’t waste too much time; he didn’t even wait to hire a replacement before letting him go.

The new-look Cook era

There’s a domino effect in the decision to let Forstall go, and years from now, the result will likely characterize how we think of Cook’s tenure at Apple.

The move should have a noticeable impact on Apple products and overall direction. Cook put iOS development into the hands of the same guy who’s in charge of Mac software, Craig Federighi. Apple has always treated to the two operating systems as distinct, but complementary. However, OS X has been taking on more and more features initially developed for iOS, and this new organizational direction foretells possibly even deeper integration between the two divisions and their software for future devices.

Apple Event 10/4 Eddy Cue

SVP Eddy Cue will take over Siri and the problematic Maps app in CEO Tim Cook’s major company shakeup.

Another possible impact of the change: the overall look and feel of Apple products. Forstall had reportedly clashed with Jony Ive over the design philosophy that underlies iOS and Apple’s own apps. The philosophy, called skeumorphism, was favored by Jobs, and continued to be championed by Forstall. Some designers regard Apple’s software design for applications such as GameCenter and Passbook as cheesy and outdated. By removing Forstall, it appears Ive will have full control over the look and feel of hardware and software.

Cook also chose to put Maps and Siri into the hands of Cue. While it means Cook trusts Cue with these products that are particular weak spots for Apple, don’t expect an instant fix. Online services in general, which Cue oversees, are Apple’s big weakness — problematic Maps and Siri are joining iCloud, whose record for reliability is far from spotless.

Some Apple watchers thought Cook wouldn’t be up to the task of leading the kind of company that Jobs built; the thinking was that he’d look at his role as simply a caretaker, and that he lacked the capacity to be bold or visionary like his predecessor.

But the move today contradicts that thinking, and the result is a pretty different organization, one looks less like Jobs’ Apple and more like Cook’s.