Tripp Micke’s After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul is something of a ghost story. The “soul” in the subtitle holds double-meaning as it might be referencing the fruit company’s legendary creative spirit, it’s uncanny ability to innovate and create entirely new ways to interact with electronics and gadgets, which – unarguably – lessened after the death of its founder, exiled pariah, and returning savior, Steve Jobs, in late 2011.
It could also mean Jobs himself, whose specter lingers throughout not just Mickle’s meticulously researched examination of the years inside Apple following Jobs’ death, but around those he left in charge. His was a specter that loomed exponentially large, still does, and probably always will.
After Steve serves as a sequel-of-sorts to Walter Isaacson’s 2011 definitive biography on Jobs as it reveals the transition of power within Apple following Jobs’ much publicized death, and the subsequent unraveling of its core team without its founder to tighten the reins. Not a straightforward biography on either Jony or Cook, Mickle explores the question of whether a company’s line of succession, and success, depends on its leaders syncing up with the psychological makeup of its founder.
Mickle largely focuses on the dynamics between Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive and CEO Tim Cook, a relationship that was never as close or as productive as the Dream Team of Jobs and Jony. Ives the product designer and Cook the salesman and coordinator, theirs was a shotgun wedding of conflicting interests which deteriorated further until Ive’s departure from the company in 2019.
Jobs embodied the best of both worlds; an intensely creative sensibility demanding absolute perfection based around the infallibility of his own ego, yet commercially savvy enough to keep making the impossible possible. Whether it was raw talent or blunt force that drove him, Jobs would act as both mentor and agitator to those around him, often at the same time Nowhere was this dynamic felt more intensely than with Ives, to which Jobs served as a counterweight to Ive’s legendary penchant for extreme minimalism,
When properly supervised Ives would help revolutionize the look and functionality of modern electronics, crafting some of the most popular and world-changing gadgets in history. That same talent, left unchecked, could also result in products that favored style over functionality. Without his friend overseeing project developments Ives was left to indulge in his wildest streamlining fantasies, a breakdown in the obsessive design cycle which Mickle traces in agonizing detail.
A rare insight attempts to put his talents into a biological perspective when an unnamed assistant ponders whether Ive is tetrachromatic, able to visually experience more of the color spectrum than most of the population. While speculative, it’s moments like this that serve to remind us that Mickle’s book isn’t the biography on Ives many have wanted, and those hoping to glean some insight into his creative process will have to content themselves as they always have – peering from the outside.
Mickle shares plenty of examples of the vastly different management styles of Cook and Jobs, a disparity never more clear than when Apple sought the approval of the fashion industry to transform the company into a “lifestyle brand” to sell its Apple Watch to non-techies. Even reading a synopsis of what happened is as embarrassing now as it was then.
Once can’t help but imagine how Steve Jobs might have handled the insufferable fashion titans, pulling them into his infamous “reality distortion field” and bending them to his will rather than watch his company prostrate itself to narcissists. History would prove Cook and Ives correct in their hunch that tech should appeal to outsiders, but there’s no doubt their execution in this instance was weak.
It would be unfair to suggest a Job-less Apple hasn’t produced hit products, the Apple Watch and AirPods specifically, as well as online services like Apple Music. But even these were less the result of forward-thinking innovations than copying the successes (or avoiding the failures) of competitors, and none have come close to supplanting the iPhone as the company’s primary focus or source of revenue.
There’s no question of Tim Cook’s success; he would guide Apple into becoming the world’s first trillion-dollar company, revolutionizing supply-side economics in the process; try buying an iPhone versus a PlayStation 5, or any popular tech toy right now, and you’ll see the brilliance of a well-oiled supply chain. Gone are the days when standing in line to buy the latest Apple gadget was news itself.
But what of that iPhone, or iPad, or any new “magical” Apple device? For all the new internals and upgraded silicon inside them, Apple’s lineup has fundamentally changed little over the last decade, in terms of functionality or style. Apple has become more an iterative company rather than an innovative one, more tortoise than hare in the techno race. While profitable, the real question is what happens when the current crop of successful products no longer satisfies like they once did? And the talent that created them is no longer available?
What Tripp Mickle attempts in After Steve isn’t so much to answer the question of whether or not Apple can succeed without Steve Jobs – it certainly has, financially anyway – but whether the intrinsic personality of its founder could live on and transcend management changes. The perils of anthropomorphizing a company based around an individual can blind us to the ‘other’ talents necessary to create the “magic” we take for granted. The pairing of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, however, may have been the exception that proved the rule.