Book review of “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul” by Tripp Mickle

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Eleven eventful years have passed since the death of Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder of Apple. Jobs, of course, helped introduce the succession of revolutionary products that almost single-handedly made consumer electronics more beautiful and less buggy. His gifts for packaging and persuasion, however, built on the work of his company’s design guru, Jony Ive, who had an exacting eye for detail and a knack for industrial production. Together, the duo put forward the idea that their company wasn’t just making innovative technologies. The magical, minimalist boxes they were selling — clad in white plastic or aluminum; beautiful, functional and delightfully futuristic — could actually change our lives.

No wonder Apple made money under Jobs — gobs of it. What seems surprising, at least in retrospect, is how that was merely a prelude to the company’s recent, decade-long bull run. Upon Jobs’s death from cancer in 2011, his handpicked successor, chief executive Tim Cook, wrote all employees a note: “We will honor his memory of him by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work he loved so much.” Wall Street had its doubts, but Cook was true to his word. In the following years, the company also rolled out improvements to phones introduced new devices and services. By transforming itself into a global colossus — a “nation-state,” as Tripp Mickle, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who recently joined the New York Times, aptly calls it in his new book, “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion -Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul” — Apple one of the most successful business ventures in the history of the world.

Mickle’s exploration of the company’s last decade shows us what happened after Jobs’s demise, as Ive and Cook built on the iPhone’s success. An engrossing narrative that’s impressively reported — a true journalistic achievement in the light of Apple’s culture of secrecy — “After Steve” takes readers deep inside the monolithic company. Mickle’s characterization of Apple’s evolution and its management sometimes seems oversimplified. Yet his book helps us see, in arresting detail, why Apple is Apple — that is, how the company mastered the process of making its devices so welcoming and accessible even as they contain the most complex modern technologies imaginable.

“After Steve” rests on the contention that Apple’s success is difficult to grasp without understanding the chemistry — and, frequently, the tension — between the two men who led the company after 2011. A native of small-town Alabama, Cook attended Auburn, and early in his career he excelled at running operations at IBM and Compaq before coming to Apple. Brilliant, aloof and unflappable, Cook was a kind of anti-Jobs. He was respectful in his bearing and modest in his tastes. For years Cook preferred living in a small apartment near Apple’s campus and using commercial rather than corporate jets. He dutifully woke up at 4 am to check sales reports. He enjoyed going to the gym and taking nature hikes, sometimes alone. And apart from his courageous public declaration that he is gay — in Bloomberg Businessweek, in 2014 — he preferred not to call too much attention to himself.

And yet, in the office, Cook was a dynamo. He seemed capable of maintaining in his working memory a databank of the company’s vast operations and supply chains, and colleagues quaked in fear during his relentless interrogations at meetings. Nobody worked harder; nobody knew more about Apple’s corporate circuitry. Nobody understood better how to boost profits.

Ive lived a different life in the same building, floating amid a world of dreamy esthetes. During Jobs’s reign, I’ve established within the company an autonomous design unit that defined Apple’s aspirations and products. By the time of Jobs’s death, he was arguably among the most powerful executives at the company, and arousing his displeasure him — by, say, talking about budgets — could result in dismissal. Some of the best passages in “After Steve” report to Ive’s sleek and secretive design works by him, where his team by him, “a group of Renaissance men devoted to art and invention,” never compromised. That’s because, with soaring iPhone profits, they didn’t have to.

Apple designers set their own hours and sipped rare coffees. They lived “like rock stars,” Mickle explains — always drinking champagne and visiting the best restaurants. (They apparently cached a supply of drugs, too.) I’ve maintained a serene exterior that belied a fierce and controlling nature. “He projected the outward persona of a genteel Brit,” Mickle tells us, “unassuming, gracious, and sensitive, but beneath it were the drive, ambition and resolve of a perfectionist who wanted to make products exactly as he imagined them.”

We sort of recall what happened next, don’t we? In 2015 Apple, under Ive’s meticulous direction, rolled out a risky new product called the Apple Watch, which aimed to bring the dazzle of fashion to the tech world. The reception for the watch was lukewarm, but over time, as the watch’s health apps and battery life improved, its sales did too. In the meantime, Cook was focused on developing huge markets in China and softening Donald Trump’s impulses to curtail the overseas manufacturing that Apple upon. Just as important, Cook began to see the potential for Apple in services — apps, streaming music and television shows — rather than new products. The gadget pipeline has not run dry (there are AirPods to sell, for instance), but it increasingly seems like the iPhone, with more than 1 billion sold by 2016, may be a once-in-a-generation product.

It’s here that the story becomes fraught. As Cook forged ahead, Ive struggled with burnout. And as Apple’s stock price has drifted higher, I’ve moved further from what he saw as an increasingly profit-driven company. Working part-time, he stopped coming to the office and focused instead on helping to design Apple’s new corporate headquarters. One of his tasks was a global search for a type of glass so clear it would have the effect, at least in Ive’s view, of bringing greater happiness to Apple employees. This eventually cost as much as $1, Mickle estimates, and constituted a billion glass project eventually “perhaps the largest order in history.” Yet it seems to have been Ive’s last eccentric hurrah from him. In 2019, with the Apple HQ finished, he resigned. Mickle notes: “Cook, who lived to work, had asked Ive to do the same. He had squeezed more out of the artist than the artist had to give.”

You might wonder if Apple’s history is as tidy as this sounds. Even with its chief designer’s absence, Apple continued to sell more and more stuff. And to those of us on the outside, nothing much changed: The company’s product line remained elegant, alluring, reliable. The argument in “After Steve” is that Apple’s growth and Ive’s alienation are what caused this great American firm, once so creative and unusual, to lose its soul. But to buy into this idea one has to believe that a corporation has a soul — a dubious assumption, I think, that seems tantamount to accepting Jobs’s old pitch that suggested Apple was more than a company that sold things to make money. Rather, it was something closer to a spiritual ideal.

It’s never been true, of course. And toward the end of Mickle’s book this notion — Apple as a fallen company, and a fallen ideal — detracts from an otherwise compelling narrative. Moreover, while the differences between Ive, the creative thinker, and Cook, the profit-driven technocrat, are no doubt real, readers may find the lines Mickle draws to be conceptually problematic. The implication that Cook destroyed Apple’s start-up culture, for instance, may seem naive to business-savvy readers, who will view him — correctly, I believe — as a principled CEO who succeeded at a challenging job by respecting his company’s traditions and looking ahead to the demands of consumers, employees and Wall Street. And I suspect many readers will have difficulty sympathizing with Ive, who seems less the edgy artist and conscience of the company, as we are perhaps meant to think (a “latter-day Leonardo da Vinci,” as Mickle unfortunately describes him), than a gifted industrial designer with an intuitive feel for the mass market and a predilection for middlebrow culture, like the band Coldplay.

As the years roll by, moreover, it’s dismaying to watch Ive’s fixation on luxury grow. It’s not just the champagne and famous friends; it’s the custom house in Hawaii, the constant trips to Europe, the fatuous $300,000 chauffeur-driven Bentley. All too often I’ve come off less as a visionary than a sybarite. And sometimes his behavior is disgusting, as when he asks co-workers at Apple to fix the soap dispensers on the Gulfstream jet he bought from Laureen Powell-Jobs, Steve’s widow.

None of this really subtracts from this book’s immense readability. And Mickle’s thematic overreach doesn’t obscure the crisp and detailed view he offers us of Apple’s inner sanctums. Still, readers of “After Steve” would do well to remember that no matter the company, soul never figures into the equation: The balance in business between growth and creativity has always been exceedingly difficult to strike. Apple made selling beautiful things seem easy. But really, it only looked that way.

Jon 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 Perilous Future.”

How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul

William Morrow. 512 pp. $29.99

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