Tim Cook’s Apple Has Forced the Whole Tech World to Realign
In Silicon Valley, where wit and irony are far scarcer than venture funding, Aaron Levie is one of the few truly funny guys. Levie is the CEO of Box, a software company that makes online tools for businesses. That doesn’t sound especially thrilling, as Levie self-deprecatingly acknowledged the other day at Box’s annual conference in San Francisco, where he had just sat down on stage to interview Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“You know you’re at an enterprise software conference, right?” Levie asked Cook, whose company is known more for its hypnotic command over consumers than businesses. “Your PR team told you?”
Cook was making his first public appearance since Apple reported selling more than 13 million of its new iPhones the previous weekend, a new record. An enterprise tech conference might seem like an odd place to crow about another crowning moment in Apple’s reign over consumer tech. But Cook wasn’t there to brag. His presence alone in front of an audience of thousands of business conventioneers signaled yet one more way Apple has forced a radical reconfiguration of the tech industry over the past several years. The heavens have shifted. Even in business, everyone orbits Apple now.
The theme of the Box conference was mobile technology, and Cook asserted that businesses still have only a halting grasp of mobile’s potential. At the moment, he claimed, most businesses think of mobile tech as little more than a portable way to check email.
“To take advantage of it in a huge way you have to rethink everything that you’re doing,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind the best companies will be the most mobile.”
In the world of enterprise tech marketing, that’s the dog-bites-man of banal pitches: it’s utterly expected. But coming from the mouth of Apple’s top executive, it takes on an extra dimension of significance. When Cook says “the most mobile,” what he’s really saying is “the most Apple.”
Apple hasn’t long been in a position to make such a claim credibly. The company’s long resurgence under Steve Jobs originated in Jobs’ genius for consumer products. The iMac, then the iPod, then the iPhone: Apple designed these devices for mass appeal—tech for generalists, not the specialized worlds of work.
But then a funny thing happened. Apple customers didn’t start demanding new devices for work. They adapted their work to the Apple devices they already had.
“Who uses iOS?” Levie asked the crowd. A forest of hands shot up.
And by Cook’s logic, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Things that make Apple products great for business, he said, are the same things that make them great for consumers.
“You wouldn’t say, let me go buy an enterprise car,” Cook said. “You don’t get an enterprise pen to write with.”
The Great Realignment
Businesses aren’t seeking out enterprise phones, either. Among enterprise users, iOS accounts for nearly two-thirds of the market. More than any other factor, that embrace accounts for the realignment on plain display during Cook’s turn on the stage. The top corporate sponsor of Box’s event was IBM, a long-ago Apple rival and now a friend that’s building business apps for business users on iOS. But note which company’s CEO was the headliner.
Cook also called out Apple’s new friendship with ex-rival Microsoft. Office apps are available free these days on iOS, and Microsoft is working with Apple to tailor its apps for the newest iPad. “Partnering with Microsoft is great for our customers. That’s why we do it. I’m not a believer in holding grudges,” Cook said. He didn’t mention how it’s easy to forgive when you’re the winner; when your superior design and first-mover advantage effectively forced Microsoft to reimagine its entire business.
Yes, Apple didn’t smother Microsoft’s chances of developing a credible mobile platform on its own. Across town as Cook talked, Google was unveiling its own new line of phones. These handsets will be compatible with the company’s own new cell service, itself a plan to draw customers into its mobile world rather than Apple’s through the promise of better wireless access. At the same time, Apple is offering its own monthly payment plan for its phones, not a move to target enterprise users alone, but yet another way it’s exerting its leverage to force other venerable tech businesses—in this case, mobile carriers—to change how they operate.
A funny thing about Tim Cook when you’re sitting just a few rows away from him is that he doesn’t radiate specialness. He doesn’t have Steve Jobs’ charisma. He wears a sweater and jeans and doesn’t radiate any kind of glow that you might expect would come off someone responsible for an enterprise that brings in more than $200 billion a year. Maybe it’s a bit of the aw-shucks Alabaman in him, the public school kid who rose to sit atop the world’s most valuable company.
But Cook doesn’t have to say much for his words to carry power. By virtue of his company’s size and strength, the consequences of any move he makes, anything he says, ripple out with more force. Apple may sell an iPhone to everyone in the world who wants one; maybe it already has. But if the iPhone also becomes the default mobile device for businesses, Apple finds yet more room to grow. Its large number problem becomes a little bit smaller. And the world of tech will have to reorient itself again to orbit ever-more tightly around Apple’s sphere of influence.
“Do you ever just want to find a microphone and, like, drop it?” Levie asked Cook, who answered with a metaphor of his own. Just because Apple is successful doesn’t mean its ambition has diminished. It may have even grown, a slightly scary thought to contemplate at a time when so many of us already spend most of our waking hours peering at the world through screens that Apple built.
“It’s like we’ve shown up for the race,” Cook said, “and the starting gun hasn’t been fired yet.”