Chief Operating Officer of Apple Tim Cook speaks during Verizon’s iPhone 4 launch event in New York. (REUTERS)
For Tim Cook, the small-town football fanatic turned steward of the world’s largest technology company, it always comes back to the vision question.
The search for an answer will frame succession planning discussions in Building 4 of 1 Infinite Loop – the heart of Apple’s California headquarters – when Cook is expected to step in for his boss to lead the annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday.
But little did Cook know that a gut decision he made in 1998 during his first meeting with Silicon Valley legend Steve Jobs would forever change his life – and alter the course of technology history.
Today, the heir presumptive at Apple Inc has to prove his technology instincts are as sharp as when he elected to jump ship from the once-mighty Compaq, which was then the world’s top PC maker, to an Apple in the 1990s that was barely afloat.
"My most significant discovery so far in my life was the result of one single decision, my decision to join Apple," a reflective Cook told Auburn University students at his alma mater last year. "Working at Apple was never in any plan that I outlined for myself, but was without a doubt the best decision that I ever made."
Indeed. Cook, the perennial No. 2 working behind the scenes throughout most of his career – he was even second in his high school class – is finally stepping into the limelight.
With Jobs out on his third medical leave of absence and deemed by many unlikely to return, Cook may finally get his shot to be number one at Apple.
But what most investors want to know is whether Cook possesses any of Jobs’ instincts for anticipating what consumers want before they know it.
Those who have known or worked with Cook over the past two decades speak of him in reverential tones, using terms like "brilliant" and "phenomenal." Still, after years of relative anonymity as Jobs’ No. 2, Cook remains untested.
He has one thing in his favor: the sheer competitiveness he shares with his boss.
"He’s not in it for the fame or the ego or the money. He’s in it to win," said Greg Petsch, who was Cook’s boss at Compaq Computer back in the late 1990s.
How Cook got his turn is now part of Apple legend. As recounted in the Wall Street Journal, Jobs, then newly returned to Apple to salvage a sinking ship, had turned down several applicants in characteristically brusque fashion, including walking out midway through one interview.
By Cook’s own account, they took to each other instantly, and Cook made his fateful decision. He was told he would be a fool to leave Compaq for an also-ran on the verge of bankruptcy. But his mind was made up.
"I listened to my intuition, not the left side of my brain," Cook said.
Despite their quick connection, Jobs and Cook are a study in contrasts.
Where Jobs is famous for his explosive temper – firing employees on the spot – Cook is described as down-to-earth and a gentleman, even soft-spoken.
Where Jobs is known for his New Age interest in vegetarianism and spirituality, Cook hails from an Alabama town, loves Auburn U football and is a fitness fanatic.
And where Jobs enjoyed rockstar-like fame early in his career as a pioneer of the computer era, the intensely private Cook toiled for years in obscurity, an operations wonk who became chief lieutenant at one of the world’s coolest companies.
Cook has since built a formidable reputation as an operations genius, credited with helping resuscitate Apple after its tailspin in the 1990s and transform it into the powerhouse of today.
"He has a steel trap of a mind," said a person who worked with him at Apple. "He not only knows everything about what he’s doing, he knows everything about what you’re doing too."
Some say that Cook’s achievements, not to mention his skillful management of Apple’s resurgent Mac unit, show that he is much more than just a by-the-numbers supply chain expert.
"They call him an operational genius, but Tim’s a lot more strategic than he’s been getting credit for," said Petsch.