Report card: Apple a year after Steve Jobs

Tim Cook earns a B+ for keeping Apple a light-year ahead of its competition while correcting the errors of his larger-than-life predecessor

Tim Cook isn't Steve Jobs. He doesn't even play him on TV. And that's a good thing. One day shy of his first anniversary as CEO, Cook presides over an Apple that lost a leader who was so closely identified with the company that many people had trouble distinguishing between the two. Yet, Apple has defied the doomsayers and is thriving like never before.

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In the last few weeks alone:

  • Apple became the most valuable company in history with a market capitalization of $627 billion. (When inflation is factored in, IBM and Microsoft of years past were worth more, but still.)
  • A human rights group lauded Apple's efforts to improve labor conditions in the Chinese factories where many of its products are manufactured.
  • Apple reversed a blunder with a humble admission of a mistake -- something Jobs would never have done -- and rescinded layoffs and cuts in employee hours in its Apple Store retail operations.

Next month, the expected release of the iPhone 5 is certain to create a tidal wave of consumer interest and publicity that advertising and marketing dollars alone could never buy.

It's become conventional wisdom to say we won't know if Cook is a great CEO for several years, because he is still executing product and business plans conceived by his predecessor. That's certainly true, but it's also true the events of the last few months are evidence that Cook, who had ample opportunities to fail, has not done so. "I'm tremendously impressed by Cook. If I had to design a CEO, it would look like him," says Robert Sutton, a professor of engineering at Stanford University who has written extensively about management in Silicon Valley.

Asked to grade Cook's 12 months in office, Sutton, author of "The No Asshole Rule," demurred. But veteran IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell didn't, and neither will I. We both believe that Cook rates a solid B+, a grade that would be even higher were it not for the incomplete I have to give him on the issue of product vision, which we can't know for a few years.

Surprise! Apple admits mistakes
Apple, of course, has challenges, and Cook's 12-month reign has not been flawless. By waiting until the fall to release the next-gen iPhone, the company suffered a sharp and unexpected drop in sales during its last quarter. And interviews with those who know the company well indicate that internal decision making has slowed as the company goes through a wrenching cultural shift.

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