This interview appeared on the Herald in my Apple Watch blog, but it had to be edited to fit. The full version appears here – it has more depth and detail about Apple, near the end.
• Tim Cook, in a release to CNBC, described Haunted Empire: Apple after Steve Jobs (NZ$17.99) partly: “This nonsense belongs with some of the other books I have read about Apple. It fails to capture Apple, Steve, or anyone else in the company.” My reading of the book doesn’t support this view. It wasn’t a biography of Jobs anyway, yet it does present an insight into a secretive company that’s almost impossible to get any information about, despite the extent to which it is watched. Would you care to comment?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — Apple doesn’t normally comment on individual books, so I think I clearly hit a nerve. The comment also came out in the early afternoon of the first day of sales, so it did make me wonder if he had actually read the book. If he did, I’m flattered that he thought it important enough to spend his work day reading it. :-0
• Were you disappointed with the backlash to your book from Apple commentators, or were you expecting it?
Yukari Iwatani Kane —Whenever anyone writes about Apple, emotions always run high. I’m very happy with where I’ve come out in my book. It wasn’t meant to be a pro-Apple book or an anti-Apple book. It’s rational assessment of Apple’s position, based on my reporting of nearly 200 sources all over the world, looking at the issues from every angle possible.
• It seems to me Apple commentators had issues with your conclusions rather than with the main text of the book. Personally I found Haunted Empire richly-detailed and insightful. But I think it’s because commentators – including myself – have a kind of emotional buy-in to Apple and it’s really easy for us to feel defensive. We feel like we need to defend Apple all the time, at least those of us with longer associations, as we go back to when Apple was an outsider that seems to be assailed from all sides. What’s your own position within this spectrum?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — That’s a very insightful thought. You may be right – I’m in Japan right now promoting the book, and the Apple fans here have been very frank about their assessment of the book. They basically say what you say — that my book rings true to what they think as well, but it was very difficult for them to hear my conclusion and that they still cling to the hope that Apple will continue to be as great as it has been.
I personally am a user of Apple products, but as a journalist, I’m really not pro-Apple or anti-Apple. I saw Apple as a case study, and emotions really didn’t factor into my reporting. I should mention however that when I started writing this book, I didn’t know what my conclusion was going to be because I started working on it shortly after Steve died, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I understood how challenging it was for any hugely successful corporation to lose a founder-visionary, but I thought that if any company could get through it without missing a beat, it would be Apple. It was all of my reporting that led me to my conclusion, not the other way around.
• What do you think drives Apple’s fandom? I can’t think of any other brand that has anything like it on such a scale.
Yukari Iwatani Kane —I can’t think of any other brand that has anything like it either. It’s a huge source of strength and power for Apple. No one can begrudge them that. They’ve cultivated this over the years.
I do think though that there is a bit of a danger in the company focusing too much on the Apple fans. Apple’s business caters to a mass market now, so not every user is an avid Apple fan. Yet, whenever Apple announces a new product or an ad or holds an event, the loudest, the most enthusiastic voices come from the fans. That’s terrific for Apple, but If they use that as a barometer for what everyone thinks, I do think they will get a wrong read sometimes on how something is being received. When I say this, one example I’m thinking of is some of Apple’s recent ads. The fans love them, but average consumers aren’t impressed.
• You obviously have a huge depth of knowledge about your subject – I was particularly fascinated with the information about the factories in Asia. I haven’t read such a personal exploration before. I found it moving to get an insight into those lives. How did gathering this information this affect you?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — Thank you so much! Those sections took a lot of time and work, so it’s very gratifying to hear you say that.
I found the situation in China to be extraordinarily complicated. What I learned about conditions there was sad, but what I wanted to convey was much more complicated — I do think that Apple has a unique opportunity to set an industry leading standard in its relationship with the suppliers, and obviously the factory worker is the one who bears the brunt of the pressures from Apple when it negotiates lower prices, but the company is a for-profit entity, not a charity. I understand why things that have happened have happened. I also think many of the problems in China are beyond Apple’s ability to fix them (though it is Apple’s reality regardless). As the sociology professor in Beijing, Ma Ai, told me, China is going through an industrial revolution.
As part of Apple’s story, I thought all of it was relevant because it’s something that they don’t have much control over, yet they are being blamed for much of it and pressured to fix it so it’s very much a challenge.
• Was there any official reaction to your book from Apple?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — Just the Tim Cook comment
Yukari Iwatani Kane — Nothing unofficial from Apple, but I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who have worked at Apple and with Apple, telling me how much they loved the book.
• Seasoned Apple fans seem quite happy with Apple’s pace of releases, whereas the newer audiences engendered by the launches of iPhone and then iPad plus those who follow the money markets constantly berate Apple for not releasing new products. What’s your opinion on this? (Is Apple bound to release new items to maintain its growth and position?)
Yukari Iwatani Kane — It seems understandable that true fans will be mostly happy with Apple whatever they do, since that’s the definition of being a fan. For me, I look at Apple as a business case study about what happens when a company loses its visionary-founder at the height of its success. So the fact that they haven’t released anything isn’t interesting in and of itself. What’s interesting is the reasons and dynamics behind it.
In some ways, it’s irrelevant why some people are happy and some aren’t because it’s Apple’s reality that it has to deal with all of them. Part of what makes Apple’s position so challenging is that there are so many interested parties now with different opinions about where Apple should go and what it should do. They include shareholders, board members, the executive team, employees, media, developers, suppliers, Apple fans, and the mass market consumer. In the past, Steve had such a firm control over the company AND he was so persuasive that all of those people were willing to buy into what Steve wanted to do because there was no question that Apple was Steve’s company.
• More generally, the whole concept of ‘empire’ these days is predicated on growth. Do you think it’s possible in this day and age for an empire to simply maintain its position?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — I think an empire can evolve. Apple’s moves of the last few months are interesting because you see Tim Cook’s rational and operational mind at work. The great thing about Apple when Steve was around was that there was so much innovation. But the bad thing was that there was also a lot of chaos. There are probably a lot of things that Apple can do to maximize on sales and profits, and that would be an area that Tim would excel in. Like the IBM announcement – Steve never cared for B2B but that doesn’t mean it’s not a business opportunity. Of course, this probably means that Apple will start looking more and more like Microsoft. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.
I don’t think it’s possible for any company to keep growing and innovating forever because at some point, the company gets too big to maneuver nimbly. In Apple’s case, Tim Cook can never be Steve Jobs no matter how hard he tries, so he might as well try to be the best Tim Cook he can be, which is what I think is starting to happen.
Apple may not be the magical, game-changing company it has been in the past, but it could be a very successful company that can reliably churn out revenues and profits.
• Did you ever meet Steve Jobs yourself? (To me, apart from his brilliance and vision, I imagined he’d be the last guy in the world I’d have ever wanted to work with)
Yukari Iwatani Kane — Yes. It was a bit of a strange meeting because I started covering Apple for WSJ when he was sick, so he wasn’t available to the media for a long time. I didn’t meet him in person until shortly after the iPad announcement during an editorial meeting with the WSJ, which was also after I broke the story about his liver transplant.
I went up to him after the meeting to introduce myself, and he looked at me for a very brief moment before he said, “I know who you are.” But we ended up having a pleasant conversation about Sony, which I used to write about when I was a correspondent in Tokyo.
• What about Tim Cook? Have you met him?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — Yes, he is a very pleasant person to speak with. I respect him
• It seemed to me Jobs could reverse course almost completely without losing much face. For example, the 1984 ad painted IBM as the enemy, and then IBM was making the PowerPC chips. Microsoft was first an ally, then an enemy, then Gates was on stage with Jobs to ‘save’ the Mac. Even the switch to Intel scared Apple followers. Do you think Tim Cook has the strength of character to make changes this radical within Apple?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — I don’t think it’s an issue of strength of character. I think it’s the difference of someone who is a founder and someone who isn’t. Just think about the dynamics around the fact that Apple’s board used to report to Steve, but Tim reports to the board. John Sculley told me that when he took over in the ’80s, he felt like he was subject to more questions about decisions than Steve had been, and I’m sure that’s true because he didn’t have the moral authority that Steve did. Tim is in the same boat.
Add to that, Steve’s supernatural ability to inspire and persuade – people trusted his vision even if it sometimes led to failure because he was so convincing. It’s what people refer to as the reality distortion field, and it’s not something you can pass on. You either have it or you don’t. Tim doesn’t have it. The ramifications of that are deep because it’s not just about convincing the consumers, it’s about convincing employees, the board, shareholders, suppliers, developers, media and everyone else, who is emotionally or financially invested.
• My feeling about Apple under Cook is that it’s somehow ‘nicer’. What’s your feeling?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — I respect him tremendously. My portrayal of Tim is based on interviews with probably two dozen people who have worked with him directly. I think who he is helped make Apple’s operations possibly the best in the world. But obviously you can’t expect someone who accomplished that to be cuddly.
People are multi-dimensional and full of conflicting personality traits. Tim is smart and he’s tough and disciplined, but he’s also a good son who calls his mother every week and he sincerely cares about people and wants to do good. That’s what makes him so fascinating because he’s in a job that requires him to be as tough as nails to excel, and he is, but he deeply admires Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, which suggests an emotional depth that he doesn’t share with anyone.
• Where do you think Apple will be in two years?
Yukari Iwatani Kane — I think Apple will continue to be very successful from a sales and profit standpoint, but the sense that it has lost its innovative edge will continue. How Apple executes in the next couple of years, especially with respect to new product categories, will be crucial for determining where Apple will be in five, ten, fifteen years.
[• I stand by my fascination with this book – it’s an excellent read • ]