What Comes After The Age Of Apple?

Published in Online Spin, January 4th, 2019

Earlier this week, the legendary Kara Swisher wrote an op-ed in The New York Times suggesting the Age of Apple may be ending.

“Now all of tech,” she said, “is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health?”

She closes by asking, “Where is that next spark that will light us all up?”

I believe the next spark will not be a platform, but a revolution in what we value.

When Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs, I wrote him an open letter. We’re re-publishing it below. I hope it’s a step towards answering Kara’s question.

Dear Tim,

I don’t envy you.

You are following in the footsteps of a man revered by millions, hailed as a genius, a visionary, a modern-day Edison.

You are building on a string of product launches that revolutionized music, laptops, mobile, and telephony.

You are faced with innumerable tributes to your predecessor, including my own, coupled with the scathing sarcasm of The Onion: "Panicking Apple Board of Directors Attempts to Restart Steve Jobs."

To say that Jobs is a tough act to follow is like saying Everest is a tough mountain to climb. It is the toughest. But the toughest scenarios house our greatest opportunities to shine—and such an opportunity lies before you.

Apple has made huge environmental strides since Greenpeace first put you in their crosshairs back in 2003, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. But you were slow to get started—behind Samsung, Nokia, LG, HP, and Dell in phasing out BFRs and PVC—and your work is far from done. In April, you were named Least Green Tech Company by Greenpeace. You rely heavily on coal for your data centers and are unclear about your future toxic chemical phase-out plans. Tim, there will be no underdog, turnaround, come-from-behind story for Apple’s products—but there can be one for your environmental record, and you can be its hero.

But beyond environmentalism lies humanitarianism. I truly believe that you were as disturbed as anyone by the suicides at your supplier Foxconn, and I appreciate that you’ve taken steps to address the conditions there. Yes, they hired counselors. And yes, they increased worker salaries 30% (although it’s worth noting that the increase still leaves the monthly wage of a line worker below U.S. $150). But surely you must recognize that there is still a fundamental problem with the working conditions, if one of the solutions touted by Foxconn—and praised by you in your supplier report—is to place nets around the buildings to catch jumpers. Surely you must recognize that requiring people to sign a legally binding document stating that they won’t commit suicide is tantamount to admitting that their dignity and well-being—even their lives—are worth significantly less than their ability to churn out personal electronic devices at low cost.

Your products are and have always been extraordinary for the focus on the user experience. I remember a friend showing me the first iPhone I ever saw. “This is the coolest bit,” he enthused, as he scrolled through his contacts list. “See? See there? How it bounces when you hit the end? That’s what makes Apple so awesome.”

That almost absurd attention to the customer has propelled your brand to the position of reverence it holds today. But imagine for a moment that you focused that same absurd attention on humanity. Imagine if you made the world a better place for everyone, instead of just making life cooler and more fashionable for those of us privileged enough to never worry about our next meal.

Tim, I have total faith that you will continue to release exceptional devices: elegant, beautiful, gratifying, and steeped in Apple’s famous attention to detail. Sadly, no matter their worth, your devices will eternally be compared to their forerunners; their successes will be attributed to the foundation on which they were built, and their failures will be held up in stark contrast to the legendary mystique of the Jobs years.

But if you revolutionize the culture of Apple to be about more than just the consumer experience and the bottom line, if you lead from the front with a commitment not only to your customers and shareholders but also to your employees, to your suppliers, to your community, and to the world, you will have done more than continue Jobs’ legacy. You will have created one that is uniquely yours—one that will set you apart among business leaders and one that your grandchildren will brag to their friends about.

I applaud you for taking on the role of CEO. As I said at the beginning, I don’t envy you the job. And I stand with you as you lead Apple into its next revolutionary iteration. It is up to you to think different. I know you can do it.

Warmest regards, 
Kaila Colbin 
@kcolbin

Kaila Colbin