A critical account of Apple is disappointingly short on thoughtful analysis.
When Steve Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1997 as interim chief executive, the company he had co-founded was on the brink of bankruptcy. The tale of how Apple’s visionary boss saved it from oblivion and then turned it into an innovation powerhouse that wowed the world with its iPods, iPhones and iPads is one of the greatest business stories of all time.
Since Jobs’s untimely death in 2011, there has been plenty of speculation about how Apple will fare without its renowned leader. Yukari Iwatani Kane, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who covered Apple in the last years of Jobs’s reign, thinks she knows the answer. In “Haunted Empire”, she concludes that a decline in Apple’s fortunes seems inevitable. Ms Kane’s instinct may be right, but unfortunately her disjointed narrative fails to make a convincing case for the prosecution.
That is a shame because the notion of an Apple haunted by the spectre of Jobs is a powerful one. The company has yet to demonstrate that it can perpetuate its record of turning staid markets upside down with new money-spinning ideas. And its past success has made it a hunted empire that now faces stiff competition from Google, South Korea’s Samsung and other rivals bent on disrupting everything from TV viewing to wearable computing–smart watches, smart glasses and so forth.
Ms Kane recounts several episodes that she thinks illustrate the fact that Apple is already on a slippery slope of decline. These include controversies over working conditions and environmental practices at some of its Asian suppliers; its long-running legal tussle with Samsung over smartphone patents; and the bungled launch in 2012 of its own mapping app to rival Google Maps.
Chapters in “Haunted Empire” recount such episodes in excruciating detail, but they often ignore the bigger picture. There is no doubt that Apple has been deeply embarrassed by revelations about working conditions at some of its suppliers. But its ability to source parts quickly and cheaply remains the envy of many competitors, who are keen to copy its methods.
The wrangling over patents is more telling. By the end of April 2012 Apple and Samsung had filed more than 50 lawsuits against one another in 16 courts in ten countries. And the battle continues: in a San Jose court this week, Apple argued that Samsung owes it $US2.2 billion for infringing patents on its devices.
Ms Kane notes that Apple’s campaign of litigation was inspired by Jobs, who was determined to stymie the advance of Google’s Android mobile operating system, which Samsung has championed. But she fails to reflect on whether Apple’s growing fondness for litigation is a sign that it is now more obsessed with protecting existing innovations rather than coming up with new ones.
Then there is the issue of comparisons with the Jobs era. Ms Kane tends to look back at this through rose-tinted glasses. The launch of Apple’s glitch-ridden mapping service under Tim Cook, Jobs’s handpicked successor as chief executive, was bungled. But she neglects to point out that there were memorable hiccups in Jobs’s time too.
For instance, problems with an internal antenna marred the launch of the iPhone 4. In spite of the embarrassment, “Antennagate”, as it was dubbed, did no lasting damage to the firm’s reputation and it is hard to see the maps debacle doing any either.
“Haunted Empire” could have probed more deeply into areas such as Apple’s $US159 billion cash pile. This is certainly impressive, but it may also be a sign that the company is running out of good ideas to spend its money on.
The burden of responsibility for producing revolutionary new products lies squarely with Mr Cook and his senior team, notably Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design guru. Ms Kane is not optimistic about their prospects. She portrays Apple’s new boss, who made his mark by managing its supply chain, as an uninspiring number-cruncher.
And she muses on whether Jobs made a mistake by choosing the self-proclaimed “Attila the Hun of Inventory” to run it rather than someone with a more creative bent.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Cook has rubbished “Haunted Empire”, claiming that it “fails to capture Apple, Steve, or anyone else in the company”. It also misses an opportunity to make a compelling case that Apple is past its prime.
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