Can Tim Cook Escape the Ghost of Steve Jobs?

At every public appearance by Tim Cook - say, Wednesday's on-stage interview at AllThingsD's annual D10 conference, or the upcoming WWDC keynote - commentators see the specter of Steve Jobs looming behind Apple's new CEO. It's no wonder. Jobs was larger than life, and the force of his personality can still be felt nine months after his death. The soft-spoken Cook is far less charismatic. Is he doomed to labor forever in his predecessor's shadow? What could Cook do to escape the ghost of Jobs?

The answer is simple: He's already well on his way. The idea that Tim Cook is a haunted man, trying to live up to the legacy of Jobs, is absurd. He's his own man, his own CEO, and Apple today is doing better than it ever was under Jobs's leadership.

This proposition isn't subjective. Look at Apple's stock value, which is up 55% since Steve Jobs' death on October 5th, 2011. That stock has been buoyed by Apple's two strongest and best-selling products ever, the iPhone 4S and the new iPad - products that were launched under Cook's watch, not Jobs'. Wall Street has a lot more confidence in Apple under Cook than under Jobs.

Investor uncertainty was partly a result of Jobs' chronic health issues. But a bigger part was Wall Street's distrust of the fabled reality distortion field. While Jobs successfully saved Apple from the brink of ruin upon his return to the company in 1997, his cult of personality was such that, to most outside observers, it seemed as though the company itself was hopped up on Steve juice. In other words, Apple was a junkie, and the moment Steve wasn't around to inject another hit, the company was going to crash. That's not a healthy situation, and to this day, investors continue to undervalue Apple's stock.

Cook has proven that assumption to be false. Apple in the post-Jobs era isn't in decline. It's ascendant.

Some will say this is because Jobs, on his death bed, was personally involved in laying a roadmap for everything Apple is currently doing. The iPhone 4S and new iPad, they will say, were Steve's babies, not Cook's. To say this, though, ignores a simple fact: Apple isn't as huge as it is today simply because of its well-designed products. Apple is the largest and most profitable tech company on Earth because it can design these magical products and then manufacture and ship them out on a massive scale without compromise and at unheard-of profit margins. That's Tim Cook's design. That's his product. That's his "one more thing." And that's why he's the CEO Apple needs right now. 

It's not enough to design products that everyone wants to own. You also need to get them into as many hands as possible. Steve Jobs was great at distilling products to their essence and making people covet them, but Apple could not be what it is today without Tim Cook's genius: his ability to get millions upon millions of devices built in total secrecy and then into the hands that want them. When the new iPad launched and lines didn't snake around the block, many saw proof that Apple had lost its mojo. The truth was far simpler: Cook is such a maestro at what he does that almost everyone who wanted a new iPad on the day it came out was able to walk into a store and buy one.

The truth is that Steve Jobs' greatest strength was nurturing talent and excellence. He didn't think of himself as irreplaceable. He set up internal universities at Apple aimed at training the next generation of executives to think more like him. He didn't believe that his way of thinking was unique. He thought it was something anyone could do. 

“Once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you," Jobs once said during his wilderness years, "and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use - once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again."

Jobs' goal was not to be indispensable to Apple. His goal was to replicate his DNA and to inject it into Apple's, so that if he ever left the company, it would not be diminished, as it was when he was forced out in 1985. 

Before he died, Steve Jobs cloned himself. Apple is now Steve Jobs' brain, and Tim Cook is the cerebral cortex of that brain, making sure that the organism as a totality - from the cerebellum of Cupertino down to the limbs of Apple's supply chain - works as a unit. Cook doesn't need to live up to his predecessor's legacy. That's something the whole company fulfills, with Tim Cook - Steve's chosen successor - at its core.

John Brownlee is deputy editor of Cult of Mac.