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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 20, 2014 at 12:13 PM

Comparing Apple’s Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer

Is Tim Cook becoming the Steve Ballmer of Apple?

Tim Cook during an Oct. 16 event in Cupertino, Calif. Photo by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images.

Tim Cook during an Oct. 16 event in Cupertino, Calif. Photo by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images.

I mean that in the best possible way.

Looking beyond style and appearance, there are some intriguing similarities.

Maybe it’s apples to oranges, but recent product launches by Apple suggest that Cook shares Ballmer’s enthusiasm for disruptive business products.

Like Ballmer, Cook seems driven by metrics and market analysis more than passion for product design or grand technology challenges.

Instead of pushing his team to reinvent the smartphone and come up with a perfect design, Cook expanded the lineup to cover the fastest-growing market segments. Then he made its signature feature a retail transaction system.

Apparently the iPhone 6 is selling just fine, so perhaps it was simply time for a more practical, less mercurial approach.

Both Cook and Ballmer are the “business guys” who took over when brilliant founders moved on, after building dominant platforms, revered brands and mountains of cash.

Both inherited maturing franchises facing intense competition and market saturation. Yet they were expected to meet lofty growth targets and produce additional home runs.

It’s like being asked to defend a castle from a siege while adding more turrets and developing a cathedral next door.

Yes, Ballmer whiffed the rise of mobile devices and search. Microsoft’s reputation and stock suffered and the company lost its place atop the tech totem pole.

But he kept the business humming and tripled sales during his 13-year run as chief executive.

Along the way, Ballmer pushed Microsoft far beyond the desktop and deeper into the network infrastructure of companies and governments.

During his tenure, Microsoft’s server business went from an emerging third leg of its stool to what may now be the most valuable part of the company. It laid the foundation for Azure cloud services, which are becoming its next giant franchise.

Cook is also applying his business insight and expertise to create potentially huge and long-lasting business products. These may be the biggest innovations so far under his leadership, depending on how the Apple Watch fares next year.

Ballmer at a Nov. 7, 2013, event in Berlin. Photo by Adam Berry, Getty Images.

Ballmer at a Nov. 7, 2013, event in Berlin. Photo by Adam Berry, Getty Images.

Ever since Cook took over for Steve Jobs in 2011, Apple fans and investors have wondered whether the company could still create breakthrough products.

As the wait dragged on and the stock dipped last spring, Cook and other executives dropped hints about big new product categories the company was preparing to enter.

Now we’ve seen them and they’re not quite what was expected. There’s no TV, car or giant iPad and not much new in the way of online services.

New gadgets that Cook revealed in recent weeks were largely sequels, updating existing products. Or they were moves into categories like big phones and smartwatches that competitors have already staked out.

The iPads unveiled last week have new chips, thinner cases and fingerprint readers borrowed from the iPhone. Some cognoscenti are waxing on about a new SIM card in the iPad but that won’t get people to line up at the store.

No, the highlights of Apple’s last two product launches weren’t gadgets at all, they were business-oriented software and services.

Apple Pay, which launches Monday, will enable people to load credit cards onto newer Apple devices and use them to pay for things at certain stores or when shopping online.

The big advance isn’t in the device. Other phones can store payment information and be used for simple payments.

Where Apple is jumping ahead is on the enterprise side. Cook leveraged the reach of Apple’s platform and the strength of its brand to build partnerships across the retail and banking industry, where he’s pushing Apple to become part of the transaction and payment infrastructure.

Apple already has carved out a share of music and video sales with iTunes. Now it’s hoping to get a percentage of all retail sales made via its hardware platform.

Cook’s other baby is Apple Health, a software platform to aggregate and manage fitness and health-care data and services.

Consumers haven’t broadly embraced fitness tracking, but Apple Health is really an enterprise play. The big money in health data is made from insurers and big employers, which are increasingly tracking this information and using it to manage health-care costs.

Cook is just getting started so it’s too soon to say he’s tilted the company one way or another.

So far he’s growing the legacy platforms, producing a steady flow of fresh hardware and simultaneously expanding into business services.

But if the histories of Microsoft and Apple are a guide, Cook will eventually have to stop playing it safe and bet the company on a crazy new product or two.

Either that, or start shopping for a pro sports team to run in his golden years.

Comments | Topics: Apple, apple pay, apple watch

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