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Haunted Empire: An unflattering and misguided look at the Tim Cook era

haunted empire appleI really wanted to like Yukari Iwatani Kane's new book about Apple, Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs. Based on over 200 interviews with current and former executives and other industry insiders, I was anticipating an intriguing look behind the secretive walls of 1 Infinite Loop. More so, I was hoping to gain a more nuanced view as to how Apple has in fact changed with Tim Cook at the helm.

To my dismay, the book failed to deliver on all counts. It's overwhelmingly clear that Kane starts with the pre-conceived conclusion that Apple's best days are behind it and cherry-picks facts and anecdotes to support her thesis. In doing so, the book is rife with bizarre leaps of logic, misleading claims, and what I can only imagine were purposeful omissions of fact. The end result is a disjointed read without a whole lot of meat or new information.

The book spends a disproportionate amount of ink discussing stories and events that don't really weigh heavily on the current state of things at Apple, such as working conditions at Foxconn, early Siri mishaps, Apple's e-book trial, the company's tax situation, and yet another retelling of Apple's legal squabbles with Android.

For a book that sets out to describe Tim Cook's Apple, there's an awful lot of filler regarding issues that either pre-date Tim Cook's tenure as CEO or are wholly irrelevant to a cogent discussion on Apple's ability to remain a influential tech player in the future.

But what really bothered me most about the book were the sheer number of misleading inferences Kane subtly presents in an effort to factualize what were ultimately her own opinions. I frankly was expecting more from an author with Kane's journalistic pedigree.

Ultimately, Kane's anti-Apple bias is so prevalent that it works to taint the entirety of the book.

Below are a few representative examples of logic-gone-wild which illustrate why many of the conclusions Kane presents about Apple are hard to take seriously.

Kane puts a negative spin on EVERYTHING

For those not familiar with Apple, Kane's book would have you believe that Apple is wandering aimlessly from one mistake to the next. Particularly puzzling is Kane's attempt to frame most everything Apple has done over the past two years in a negative light. Even Tim Cook's performance at last year's All Things D conference wasn't safe from scrutiny, with Kane writing that Tim Cook came across as "delusional" and painfully out of touch.

1) Tim Cook as a demanding boss is worrisome

Following the dismissal of former retail chief John Browett, Kane writes the following regarding Cook coming into his own as Apple CEO:

By this time, Cook's management style was becoming more apparent. Cook delegated responsibilities and rewarded his executives as long as they did well. But if they made a mistake, he came down on them hard. The danger with that approach was people becoming risk-averse and stifling innovation.

All of these considerations raised the question: Was cook the best choice to chart Apple's future?

So let me get this straight; Tim Cook, as a CEO with high expectations, and as a CEO who holds employees and executives accountable, is actually working to stifle innovation? Umm, okay.

2) Tim Cook as a respectful boss is worrisome

Meanwhile, Kane also writes that whereas Steve Jobs would routinely call back employees from vacation, Cook is more respectful of employee personal time. But, of course, this comes at a cost because Kane writes that "with more flexibility, people began taking vacations more freely."

Why might this be worrisome? Because what Apple employees under Tim Cook "gained in happiness, they lost in intensity."

So Kane essentially argues that Cook may not be the best fit as Apple CEO because his high expectations stifle innovation at the same time that his respect for his employees creates a sense of complacency. Put differently, Cook as CEO is a questionable choice because he's too demanding while also being too lax.

3) Apple employees are in it for the money

Kane also smells trouble at Apple because long-time employees who saw their stock options make them millions now "didn't need to work as hard anymore, especially if they couldn't see a further upside."

Compounding matters, Kane writes that newer employees at Apple now had no incentive to stay at the company because they had "joined too late to benefit from the huge run-up in stock price over the last few years before the decline started."

This is nothing more than pure conjecture without any facts, details, first-hand accounts, or examples to stand on.

There's no denying that shares of Apple are down significantly from their all-time high of $700, but Apple's share price today (in the $530 range) is still about 44% higher than it was at the time of Jobs' death.

4) Apple beat Samsung in court, and that's also worrisome

Particularly bizarre is Kane's attempt to spin Apple's legal victory over Samsung as a defeat because the ruling was unlikely to "convince more consumers to buy iPhones and iPads."

Kane further writes that Apple's legal victory came at a cost because it "validated" Samsung as a worthy competitor while also providing the Korean tech giant with free advertising.

In truth, Samsung is a worthy competitor because it sells millions upon millions of smartphones and tablets, not because Apple decided to take them to court.

Kane adds:

Apple's win also put an uncomfortable spotlight on its motivations. Why was the company wasting so much time, money, and energy protecting its older technologies if it had game-changing products up its sleeve? Could it be that there was nothing more in the pipeline? Steve Jobs was famous for never looking back. But perhaps the company now had too much to lose.

These types of logical leaps really strain the book's credibility, especially considering that it was Steve Jobs, and not Tim Cook, who spearheaded Apple's initial legal battle with HTC and Samsung. Was it not Steve Jobs who famously declared that he was prepared to go thermonuclear on Android?

In yet another example highlighting the book's aversion to providing a complete story, Kane is gutsy enough to write that Samsung was handed "another advantage" when Judge Lucy Koh struck down $450.5 million from Apple's $1 billion judgement on account of a jury miscalculation.

This, Kane explains, was another setback for Apple because collection on the judgement was postponed. What's more, Kane writes that it was a success(!) for Samsung insofar that they "had been remarkably effective at pushing the narrative that the jury had no idea what it was doing and Apple didn't deserve the magnitude of the win that it scored."

Not quite.

Ultimately, Apple was awarded $929 million instead of $1.05 billion, not exactly the black mark Kane would otherwise have you believe.

Irrelevant facts to back up assertions abound

Throughout the book, Kane relies upon flimsy facts that don't quite align with the points she's trying to make.

In detailing Apple's executive team, for example, Kane describes Apple's Senior VP of Marketing Phil Schiller as a bombastic fellow who relishes his grip on power. But rather than providing detailed examples, aside from Schiller being wary of new executives until they prove themselves, Kane instead focuses on the music Schiller enjoys and his favorite hockey team.

Even in his personal life, he projected bold tendencies. He was a fan of the San Jose Sharks hockey team and owned a Lamborghini. A former percussionist, he favored music with aggressive, driving drum tracks like Led Zeppelin's "Good Times. Bad Times."

I suppose if you can't source detailed behind the scenes info, you sort of have to focus on immaterial facts like favorite sports teams and personal music preferences.

This type of spotty narrative unfortunately permeates many of the book's chapters.

Apple may have tried to embarrass Woz.. Say what?!

Somewhat indicative of most of the book, Kane casually suggests that Apple may have purposefully tried to embarrass Steve Wozniak by having video monitors pan to him after Phil Schiller introduced the Mac Pro at WWDC 2013. Why would Apple do this, you might ask? Because Woz had previously made statements about Apple potentially losing its creative edge.

Was it a flourish of choreographed revenge, a staged dose of instant karma aimed at embarrassing Wozniak?

To his credit, Wozniak did not give his attackers any satisfaction. When the camera closed in, his face betrayed only mild interest. One blogger, watching the live feed, thought Woz looked sleepy.

Wow, masterfully played, Woz! I can only wonder who tipped him off to the fact that "attackers" had invited him there with a grand plan to embarrass him. Incidentally, you can check out Woz's neutral reaction to the announcement here.

Again, it's passages like this that really undermine the book's credibility as a whole. Instead of say, oh I don't know, actually asking Woz for his initial thoughts on the Mac Pro, Kane crafts a story about Apple potentially engaging in a bit of "choreographed revenge."

Conveniently, Kane neglects to mention a rather easy to find June 2013 video interview Woz did with Slashgear where he addresses his demeanor during the WWDC announcement. Incidentally, it's the first hit that comes up when you Google, "Woz on the Mac Pro."

In some one-to-one time, we asked the Apple co-founder what he thought of the new Mac Pro also shown at WWDC, and in particular its design. Wozniak told us that he really likes the drastic change in aesthetic, and that it reminds him of the older Power Mac G4 Cube, which also sported a smaller form-factor like the 2013 Mac Pro.

As for his much-commented-on expression during the keynote when the Mac Pro was being detailed, there have been suggestions that he looked less than impressed, but he argues that people are mistaken. The look on his face during the applause while everyone else was clapping, he says, was simply him "just thinking". Unlike a lot of people, he pointed out, Wozniak prefers to carefully evaluate products and situations first before arriving at a conclusion, so as to not make a rash opinion. In fact, he was mentally comparing the Mac Pro to HP's workstations, which he believes are now the best on the market.

So instead of doing a simple Google search or perhaps reaching out to Woz for clarification, we're presented with a spotty and misleading story about an Apple co-founder remaining unimpressed with innovation at Apple. While Kane's telling of the story aligns with her overarching narrative -- namely that Apple has lost its luster -- it's also quite misleading.

Siri? Really?

Kane spends an inordinate amount of time talking about Siri, never mind the fact that Siri was purchased and developed as an iOS feature while Jobs was still alive. Measuring the Tim Cook era by examining initial launch issues with Siri is far from instructive, and perhaps speaks to Kane's inability to truly attain much information about Apple post-Steve Jobs.

Kane even adds that "Siri's rocky start wasn't Tim Cook's fault." Okay, that's fair, but then why spend so much time detailing Siri's history, Siri advertising efforts, and Siri's launch-day shortcomings? For a book that promises to provide an "illuminating portrait of Apple today that offers clues to its future", why is there no discussion whatsoever centering on how Siri may factor into Apple's future plans for the iOS ecosystem?

As a final point, I was covering Apple extensively when Siri launched and don't recall it being the big fiasco of a flop that Kane makes it out to be. Sure, people enjoyed posting Siri missteps, and sure, Apple's Siri servers were sometimes overwhelmed , but I don't believe the Siri launch is heralded as a big black eye in Apple history. It certainly didn't garner the same level of negative attention as Apple Maps or Antennagate.

Tim Cook: A happy #2 or a man with with grand ambition?

One last example. Kane writes that Tim Cook was able to excel at Apple because he lacked an ego. Content at playing an important role behind the scenes, Kane articulates that Cook was okay with letting stars like Steve Jobs and Jony Ive garner much of the press attention because he was happy to be "second-in-command."

But just one paragraph later, Kane writes that there were hints of grand ambition with respect to Cook ascension to the CEO position.

But underneath the demure denials were hints of grand ambition. One of Cook's favorite quotes was one from Abraham Lincoln. "I will prepare and someday my chance will come."

...

He had prepared and waited with seemingly infinite patience. Now his moment had arrived.

The quote Kane cites was originally made by Cook during his 2010 Auburn Commencement address. Looking at the quote in context, It wasn't a statement that shrouded any grand ambition on the part of Cook, but rather a quote meant to instill in students the notion that if they work hard, opportunities will come their way.

The notion that Tim Cook has long had a "grand ambition" to be Apple CEO would be incredibly interesting if there were facts or interviews to back it up. But if all we're presented with is an out-of-context passage from a college commencement address, why bother including it at all?

As Charles Arthur noted in his own review of the book:

I found the bizarre attribution of meaning to events which didn't seem to have meaning more and more intrusive.

Wrapping up

Overall, the book provides a simple rehashing, albeit with a negative slant, of Apple news stories over the past two years. What the book doesn't provide is any true insight into how Apple operates differently under Tim Cook than it did Steve Jobs, at least in any ways that are important.

The book's back cover reads in part:

Hard-hitting yet fair, Haunted Empire reveals the perils and opportunities an iconic company faces when it loses its visionary leader.

If only that were true.

Again, I really wanted to like this book but found it no more compelling or insightful than Kane's somewhat strange New Yorker article wherein she criticized Apple's '30 years of Mac' celebration.

The inherent challenge in writing any book about Apple is that the company is notoriously closed off. Even former employees are unusually loyal and tend to shy away from discussing their tenure at the company. Consequently, authors in Kane's position are often forced to craft their own narrative and work backwards from there.

The end result, in this case, is a book that undermines its own premise. By blindly presenting opinions as facts and spending too much time rehashing issues of no consequence to Apple's future innovative prospects, we're ultimately left with a book that fails to present an intriguing and informative look at the Apple empire that Kane would desperately have us believe is "haunted" by Steve Jobs.

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