When we began reporting on Apple in the summer of 2019 we faced an immediate problem: how to get inside a company described by Tim Cook, its chief executive, as more secretive than the CIA?
We’re happy to admit: it was tricky.
Apple employees are told from day 1 not to discuss their work with the press, or anyone outside of the company (in some cases, this includes their partners). Many lockdown their social media accounts – leaving only blase statements like “Work: Cupertino”. Meanwhile, internal blogs list the number of employees caught leaking – and those arrested for divulging trade secrets.
To give you a sense of it, we contacted 48 senior Apple staff members via LinkedIn (a better method of reaching out to potential sources than emails, which often go through personal assistants). Only two replied: one to flat out refuse speaking to us; one to direct us to the company’s PR team. Almost all of the conversations with Apple employees – past and present – were off the record.
For future Apple watchers, we’re more than happy to recommend the sources that have shone light on the company in the last few years, and whom we’ve particularly relied on.
David Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School, was also fascinating to speak to. He wrote a great profile of Apple for HBS in 2018 and has been following the company for decades.
The Information, a website set up by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin, has broken several great stories about Apple, including its plans to introduce AR glasses in 2023. Its contacts run deep. Its mapping of the Apple hierarchy is invaluable.
Another good guide to Apple Land is Tripp Mickle, the Wall Street Journal’s Apple correspondent. His report last year on the distancing between Jony Ive and Tim Cook rattled the company and provoked an unusual on-record denial from the chief executive. You can follow him here.
When it comes to Apple analysts, we found Gene Munster, managing partner at Loup ventures, particularly insightful. This video of Munster explains why he’s bullish on Apple: he calls it the only company that can bring together hardware and services.
Those more bearish on Apple’s future are not lacking. They include Andy Hargreaves of Keybanc Capital Markets, who warned last year that Apple’s pivot into services is a dicey move into a competitive market, and Paul Meeks, a tech investor who believes that Apple’s stock is overvalued by $100 share. Both are worth keeping an eye on.
For transcripts of Apple’s own earnings calls, we visited the Motley Fool website which publishes all its quarterly earnings calls.
We really benefited from Steven Levy’s reporting for WIRED magazine: he’s been covering Apple for years and even though he’s currently focusing on Facebook he retains a suite of current and former Apple sources. Here is a good piece on Apple Park.
Other useful sources we relied on for our project included Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Michael Moritz’s The Little Kingdom and Yukari Iwatani Kane’s Haunted Empire, all of which get at the soul of the company.
On Steve Jobs and early Apple
The definitive book on Steve Jobs – not least because it involved that rarest of things, cooperation from Jobs himself – is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (latest edition, 2015). It is particularly insightful on the early years of Apple, when Jobs’ single-minded and often merciless pursuit of perfection forced him out of the company he co-created with Steve Wozniak (whose book iWoz, from 2006, is also worth reading). Among its stories: how Jobs’ “aesthetic passions and controlling nature” led him to insist on pure white factories for the Macintosh, stocked with machinery that was specially repainted in different colours. “One of the most expensive machines, which got painted bright blue, ended up not working properly and was dubbed ‘Steve’s folly’.”
The story of the making of the Macintosh – which is, really, the story of the making of Apple as we know it – is told in even greater detail in a pair of books, both of which are still among the best ever written on American technology: Michael Moritz’s The Little Kingdom (1984) and Steven Levy’s Insanely Great (1994). Moritz was originally picked by Jobs to be “our historian”, but Jobs turned against him during the writing of The Little Kingdom. Instead, Levy has become what might be called Apple’s court journalist, enjoying more access than practically anyone else who works outside of the company – as his writing for WIRED magazine testifies.
Jobs was abrasive but also often right. In this 1990 interview for the television series The Machine That Changed the World, he describes the computer as a “bicycle of the mind” – and also predicts, around the same time that Tim Berners-Lee was first working on the World Wide Web, that human-to-human communication would be next revolution in desktop computers.
In this Stanford Commencement address from 2005, two years before the release of the first iPhone, Jobs whistles through his zigzagging career and joins the dots to show how trusting his instinct brought him success in unexpected ways. His conclusion? Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
Jobs had a knack for showmanship, and he brought it to bear on Apple’s product launches. The launch of the original Macintosh, which can be watched here, has the crowd whooping at a series of graphical images that were unprecedented in home computing at the time – and then whooping even louder when the Mac introduces itself in speech, “Hello, I’m Macintosh.” The launch of the first iPhone in 2007, which can be watched here, starts with Jobs talking about introducing “three revolutionary products… a widescreen iPod with touch controls… a revolutionary mobile phone… a breakthrough internet communications device”, until the crowd eventually catches on that he’s actually talking about one device.
Leander Kahney’s biography of Jony Ive (2014) is one of the only books devoted to the designer who became Jobs’ righthand man. It’s particularly good at highlighting the areas of deep overlap between two men who seemed quite different on the outside. Even when he was a student, Ive would produce dozens and dozens of models of his designs, with only miniscule refinements between each version – which is much how Jobs created the Mac.
On Tim Cook and modern Apple
Kahney has also written the only straight biography of Tim Cook. However, the best book on the post-Jobs years is Yukari Iwatani Kane’s Haunted Empire (2015), which is particularly revealing about Cook’s demanding, all-hours working methods. It tells the story of one meeting in which a junior member of staff cited a number and of Cook’s response: “That number is wrong. Get out of here.”
Outside of the office, Cook is more often a statesmanlike figure – pushing his companies’ interests through face-to-face meetings with world leaders. His willingness to indulge Donald Trump is explored in detail in this Verge piece. And this Reuters article explains how Cook’s diplomatic approach benefits Apple’s shareholders.
But Cook’s global interventions haven’t always had positive results. In 2013, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for this series of articles on the “iEconomy” – including the harsh conditions in the Foxconn facilities where many Apple products are made. Cook was instrumental in having Apple’s manufacturing operations outsourced to Foxconn in China.
This Wallpaper magazine interview with Ive is ostensibly about the new Apple Park – and contains a number of striking photos of the interior – but says quite a lot about Apple’s evolution in general. On the subject of hardware, Ive says: “What I think is remarkable about the iPhone X [the 2017 iteration of the iPhone] is that its functionality is so determined by software… In 12 months’ time, this object will be able to do things that it can’t now. I think that is extraordinary.”
By Tim Cook
Cook occasionally expresses his – and therefore Apple’s – position on significant matters in staff-wide memos, including the one that he wrote about the company’s battle with the FBI in the San Bernardino case. “At stake,” he argued, “is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.” He also occasionally puts his name to open letters, including this one protesting against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Fourteen years after Jobs’ Stanford Commencement address, Cook delivered one of his own. His main message was that you need to take responsibility if you want to take credit.
Apple’s financial filings are less dry and more narrative-focused than those published by most other companies. This one from early 2017 is a case in point. It contains one of the first mentions – if not the first mention – of the six “values” that Cook wants his company to abide by: i) Inclusion and Diversity, ii) Accessibility, iii) Supplier Responsibility, iv) Education, v) Privacy and Security, and vi) Environment.
The main filing for 2019, which shows a big decline in iPhone revenues but an increase in money made from services, can be found here.
The company’s quarterly earnings calls, which happen in public, are also revealing. This transcript of the Q3 2018 call, published by the financial website The Motley Fool, shows how Apple’s bosses are increasingly emphasising their “install base” – the number of people who already have Apple devices – rather than new sales of iPhones. The move towards services is designed, in large part, to make money from this install base.