Book review "After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul" by Trip Michal

Book review “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul” by Trip Michal

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Eleven eventful years have passed since the death of the charismatic co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. Of course, Jobs helped introduce a succession of revolutionary products that single-handedly made consumer electronics more beautiful and less cumbersome. However, his gifts of packaging and persuasion were built on the work of his company’s design expert, Joni Ive, who had a keen eye for detail and a knack for industrial production. Together, the duo brought up the idea that their company wasn’t just making innovative technologies. The simple magic boxes they were selling – covered with white plastic or aluminum; Beautiful, functional and delightfully futuristic – they can truly change our lives.

No wonder Apple made money under Jobs – blocks of it. What seems surprising, at least in retrospect, is how that era was merely a precursor to the company’s recent decade-long rise. Upon Jobs’ death of cancer in 2011, his chosen successor, CEO Tim Cook, wrote to all employees a note: “We will honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work that I love so much.” Wall Street had its doubts, but Cook was true to his word. In the following years, the company systematically made improvements to phones and introduced new devices and services. By transforming itself into a global giant — a “nation-state,” as Tripp Meckel, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who recently joined the New York Times, described it, in his new book, “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul” — it became Apple is one of the most successful business ventures in the history of the world.

Mikel’s exploration of the company’s final decade illustrates what happened after Jobs’ demise, as Eve and Cook built on the success of the iPhone. An impressively well-reported narrative—a true journalistic feat given Apple’s culture of secrecy—”After Steve” takes readers into the depths of the monolithic company. Meckel’s description of Apple’s development and management sometimes seems too simplistic. However, his book helps us see why Apple is Apple — in minute detail — how the company has perfected the process of making its devices welcome and accessible even as they contain the most sophisticated modern technology imaginable.

After Steve builds on the argument that Apple’s success is difficult to understand without understanding the chemistry — and often the tension — between the two men who led the company after 2011. Early in his career he excelled in managing operations at IBM and Compaq before coming to Apple . Intelligent, aloof and unassailable, Cook was a kind of anti-Job. He was respectful in his tolerance and modest in his tastes. For years, Cook preferred to live in a small apartment near the Apple campus and use commercial planes instead of commercial planes. I honestly get up at 4 a.m. to check sales reports. He enjoyed going to the gym and taking long walks in nature, sometimes alone. Aside from his brave public declaration that he was gay — in Bloomberg Businessweek, in 2014 — he preferred not to draw too much attention to himself.

However, in the office, Cook was a dynamo. He seemed to be able to keep in his working memory a database of the company’s vast operations and supply chains, and his colleagues shivered in fear during his relentless interrogations in meetings. Nobody works harder. Nobody knows more about Apple’s circuits. Nobody understands better how to increase profits.

I’ve lived a different life in the same building, floating amidst a world of dreamy aesthetics. During Jobs’ tenure, within the company she created an independent design unit that defined the aspirations of Apple and its products. By the time of Jobs’ death, he was arguably among the company’s most powerful executives, and to his dismay – speaking of budgets for example – could lead to dismissal. Some of the best passages in “After Steve” relate to Yves’ elegant and discreet design work, as his team did not compromise on “a group of Renaissance men devoted to art and invention.” That’s because, with iPhone earnings soaring, they didn’t have to.

Apple designers set their working hours and rare coffees. Michael explains that they lived “like rock stars” – they always drank champagne and visited the best restaurants. (Looks like they’ve cached a stockpile of medicine, too.) She has maintained a calm exterior that belies a fierce and controlling nature. “He showed the outward character of a polite Briton,” Mikhel tells us, “who is humble, generous, and sensitive, but beneath him was the drive, ambition, and determination of a perfectionist who wanted to make products just as he imagined them.”

We kind of remember what happened after that, right? In 2015, Apple, under the careful guidance of Ive, introduced a risky new product called the Apple Watch, which aims to bring a dazzle of fashion to the tech world. The watch’s reception was lukewarm, but over time, as the watch’s health applications and battery life improved, so did its sales. Meanwhile, Cook has focused on developing huge markets in China and easing Donald Trump’s motives to curb the overseas manufacturing that Apple depends on. Just as importantly, Cook is beginning to realize Apple’s potential in services — apps, music streaming and TV shows — rather than new products. The hardware pipeline hasn’t run out (there are AirPods on sale, for example), but it increasingly looks like the iPhone, which sold over a billion by 2016, may be a once-in-a-generation product.

Here the story gets charged. As Cook progressed, I suffered from burnout. And as Apple’s stock price drifted higher, it moved away from what he saw as an increasingly dividend-driven company. By working part-time, he stopped coming to the office and instead focused on helping design the new Apple headquarters. One of his tasks was the global search for some kind of glass, so it is clear that it will have the effect, at least from Eve’s point of view, in bringing greater happiness to Apple employees. This project ultimately cost up to $1 billion, Meckel estimates, and constituted “perhaps the largest glass order in history.” However, it seemed like it was Eve’s latest eccentric nonsense. In 2019, with Apple HQ winding down, he quit. Michael notes: “Cook, who lived to work, asked that I do the same. He put more pressure on the artist than the artist had to give him.”

You might be wondering if Apple’s history is as arranged as it seems. Even with the absence of the chief designer, Apple continued to sell more and more things. And for those of us abroad, not much has changed: the company’s product line has remained sleek, attractive, and reliable. The argument in After Steve is that it was Apple’s growth and Eve’s isolation that caused this great American company, once so creative and extraordinary, to lose its soul. But to be convinced, one would have to think that the company has a soul — a questionable assumption, I think, that seems to amount to accepting Jobs’ old offer that suggested Apple was more than a company selling things to make money. Rather, it was something akin to a spiritual ideal.

This was never true, of course. And at the end of Mikkel’s book, this idea—Apple as a fallen company, as an ideal—is detracts from a compelling narrative. Moreover, while the differences between Yves, a creative thinker, and Cook, a profit-driven technocrat, are undoubtedly real, readers may find the lines that Mikhel draws conceptually problematic. The insinuation that Cook ruined Apple’s start-up culture, for example, would seem naive to seasoned business readers, who would view him—correctly, I think—as a principled CEO who succeeded in a challenging job by respecting and looking at his company’s traditions . Forward to the demands of consumers and Wall Street employees. And I suspect that many readers will find it difficult to sympathize with Eve, who seems less a sharp and conscientious artist to the company, as we might be supposed to think (“Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Day,” as Mikl sadly describes him), than a talented industrial designer with an intuitive sense of the mass market and a penchant for middle-class culture, such as Coldplay.

On top of that, as the years go by, it’s frustrating to watch Eve’s focus on luxury grow. Not just champagne and famous friends; It’s the custom home in Hawaii, the constant trips to Europe, the ridiculous chauffeur-driven Bentley worth $300,000. Oftentimes, Ive comes across as less visible than sybarite. And sometimes his behavior is obnoxious, as when he asks his Apple colleagues to fix soap dispensers on the Gulfstream he bought from Lauren Powell Jobs, Steve’s widow.

None of this really takes away from the sheer readability of this book. And Michael’s transcendence of objectivity does not obscure the clear and detailed view he offers us of Apple’s inner sanctuary. Still, “After Steve” readers do best to remember that no matter the company, the soul never gets into the equation: Balancing the business between growth and creativity has always been very difficult. Apple made selling pretty things seem easy. But really, it just looked that way.

John Gertner is the author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” And the “Ice at the end of the world: an epic journey into Greenland’s buried past and our precarious future. “

How Apple became a trillion dollar company and lost its soul

William Morrow. 512 pages $29.99

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