Sunday, April 14, 2013

Last December in this space I published a column titled "The Most Damaged Big Brand of The Year Is…" -- with the answer being Apple. I dwelled on some of the tech giant's problems in 2012, including its Apple Maps catastrophe and the growing scandal over the brutal conditions at the factories of its China-based subcontractors.

At the time, I noted that Apple's stock was trading at around $540 a share, down from a 52-week high of $705.

As of this writing, it's at $435.

Should we blame Steve Jobs' successor, CEO Tim Cook? I say no, absolutely not. As I argued in December, a correction in our collective attitude toward high-flying Apple was surely a long time coming, and the reality is that much of the bad karma Apple has been earning payback on was built up during Steve Jobs' reign.

The thing about Tim Cook is that, while he's a decisive leader, he's far from being the charismatic, messianic figure that Jobs was -- nobody is -- so by contrast he's seemed almost recessive. It's a bit of a thankless job following someone of Jobs' global fame.

But now Cook has had enough time at the helm to make the company truly his own. Nearly a year and a half after Steve Jobs' death, there are signs that the Jobs Era at Apple is finally, definitively over. To wit:

Starting today, it seems pretty official that we're allowed to have fun with Steve Jobs' memory. This morning Funny or Die is releasing its hour-long biopic "iSteve," starring none other than Justin Long, the "Mac Guy" from the long-running "Get a Mac" commercials, as Jobs. The trailer for the film, which we ran on, suggests that "iSteve" will be everything you'd hope it would be -- cheesy, cliched, breathless, overwrought, overheated -- and it's obviously meant to satirize the biopic genre itself. But it also has fun with Jobs' legend. At one point in a voice-over we hear Long, as Jobs, barking out an order: "Call it the iPod: lowercase "i,' uppercase "P,' lowercase "o,' lowercase "d.' Write that down." It's a subtle dig at the auteur theory attached to Jobs' legacy -- as if he was the only guy who really mattered at a company that employs more than 78,000 people worldwide.

A few weeks back Apple hired Adobe Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch as its VP for technology. Late in life, Jobs was notoriously at war with Adobe over its Flash technology, which he despised. At Adobe, Lynch was one of the noisiest Flash evangelists; he even co-starred in a wry 2009 video, created for an Adobe developer conference, in which he and a colleague were shown doing stuff like sticking one iPhone in a blender and flattening another with a steamroller. Lynch is obviously a provocative choice given that bit of history, but his hiring is really about the fact that he's a software guy who championed the cloud -- including the Creative Cloud subscription service -- at Adobe. Tim Cook signing off on Kevin Lynch's hiring suggests a new emphasis on software-as-product and possibly less dependence on end-to-end manufacturing of physical devices.

Last week, Topeka Capital Markets analyst Brian White released a research note saying that, based on a meeting he had with an Apple-supply-chain company, he believes the next iPhone will come in two or even three different screen sizes. If true, it would represent yet another departure from Steve Jobs' stubborn P.O.V. about offering consumers options.

After the original iPad was released, Jobs famously ridiculed competing manufacturers for making 7-inch tablets, declaring that they offered a dramatically compromised user experience compared to the 10-inch iPad. After his death, of course, Apple introduced a tablet in the 7-inch range -- the 7.9-inch iPad mini, which many users now consider to be the ultimate iPad. (It really does make the larger iPad feel like a ridiculously unwieldy slab.)

I've been an iPhone user from the get-go, but I increasingly feel envious of all the extra screen real-estate that many of my friends and colleagues get to play with when they pull out Android phones from Samsung and other Apple competitors. I think Tim Cook is smart enough to know that just vertically elongating the iPhone's screen -- as was done with the iPhone 5 -- was a not-good-enough half-measure.

The smartphone market is morphing into the mini-tablet market, which is an uncomfortable reality for Apple, but one it absolutely must face.

For a remarkably long time, Apple worked brilliantly as a one-size-fits-Steve company. If a product worked for Steve Jobs, that was good enough; millions upon millions could be expected to reliably line up behind the great man and dutifully validate his exceedingly limited and limiting aesthetic choices.

But with smartphones and tablets destined to become commoditized categories, Apple has no choice but to offer ... choice.

Say what you will about Tim Cook, but he's not running a one-size-fits-Tim company -- and that's really good news for the future of Apple.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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