When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, he didn’t like what he saw, so he set about changing the corporate culture. A decade later, one proof of his success was the fact that the company seemed to follow a rulebook, largely behaving with a consistency that allowed those of us who covered the company to react to wild rumors with phrases like “Apple wouldn’t do that” or “that’s not how Apple does things.”
But in the years following Jobs’s death (and the departure of some other Jobs-era executives), Apple has continued to evolve—and in many cases, it’s torn up the old rulebook. A lot of the changes strike me as being for the better. I feel like after Steve laid down the law in the late 1990s, some policies and decisions were never really reconsidered until the Tim Cook era got into full swing.
Here are just a few ways that today’s Apple has tossed out, or at least amended, the classic Apple rulebook.
Buying apps and keeping them visible
When Apple bought the iOS automation app Workflow, most people assumed that Apple would follow its usual acquisition rulebook: Swallow the company whole, make the existing product disappear, and leave us guessing about what new operating-system features were based on pieces of the technology that Apple had devoured or were created by the people hired as a part of the acquisition.
That’s a common story (and to be fair, it’s still a description of a lot of Apple’s acquisitions), but the Workflow story has proven to be the exact opposite. The Workflow app has continued to be available in the App Store, long after the acquisition. And when iOS 12 was announced, there was Siri Shortcuts being announced by some familiar names and faces, featuring an app that’s just an updated version of Workflow.
The only other example I can recall of Apple acquiring something and basically keeping it intact (but improving it thanks to the advantages of being on the Apple inside) is TestFlight, the beta-testing app, but that’s much less of a consumer-facing technology than Siri Shortcuts.
So the next time Apple buys an app or web service you like, it’s all right to be worried—but also keep the counter-example of Workflow in mind.
Calling events and launching products
Apple’s approach to product launches has changed quite a bit in the Cook era. The company can, and does, launch products at big events like the WWDC keynote and the annual iPhone launch event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino. But this year Apple launched a new iPad in a high school in Chicago, and rolled out new MacBook Pros by inviting a small number of journalists to New York City.
When Apple failed to roll out those new laptops at WWDC, a lot of people assumed that we wouldn’t see them until Apple’s next big media event in the fall. But Apple has shown that it can roll out new products anywhere and at anytime. I still imagine that the company would prefer to roll out major updates on a big stage, but there’s an argument to be made that it can get coverage whenever it wants, from whomever it wants.
Access to journalists
In the old days, sometimes Apple would give product access to a very select number of journalists. But I can’t remember the company targeting single journalists for specific stories about ongoing Apple developments like it did when it let Matthew Panzarino ride around in an Apple Maps van last month. Today’s Apple PR, led by Steve Dowling, is much more creative in how it releases information into the world, going far beyond product releases.
Another part of this change, and probably one that was really necessary post-Jobs, is making many Apple executives available to journalists and other media figures, and widening the population of Apple employees who appear on stage at its events.
Jobs was the star when he was at Apple, though occasionally a few other execs—Phil Schiller and Greg Joswiak being the two best examples—would also appear on stage. Tim Cook is happy to be the emcee at major Apple events, but he spreads the stage attention around, and not just to a couple of lieutenants. I think Jobs was concerned that if any Apple employee got recognized by name on stage, they’d be the target for recruiters to steal them away to a competitor, and that led to a reluctance to allow other faces to show themselves as part of Apple. The company has changed on that front, and it’s also been an opportunity to add some gender and racial diversity to the public face of the company.
Apple has been uniquely structured as a functional organization, where there’s no VP of iPad and another VP of Mac and another VP of iPhone, all jostling for resources and competing with other parts of the company. Apple is… well, Apple, and all the products cross over and feed in to one another.
But look at this: Apple named John Giannandrea as its head of Siri and machine learning, a change that suggests Apple is changing how it organizes its services in order to pull key functionality into a single group with a single leader. It’s an encouraging sign for Apple’s future in the services business.
A smaller, but still important change, was moving responsibility for the App Store from the iCloud group led by Eddy Cue to the marketing group led by Phil Schiller. Over the past couple of years, Schiller has made the App Store more understandable and responsive for developers, and has led a dramatic improvement in how apps are marketed via the new editorial content that debuted with iOS 11 (and which will extend to macOS this fall with Mojave).
Growth, change, and adaptability are important to the ongoing success of any organism, whether it’s a person or a giant company. In a few areas, Apple stuck with what worked in the late 90s and early 2000s maybe a little longer than it should have. But in the past few years, the changes have been coming fast, and they’re generally for the better. When someone tells you with authority that Apple simply doesn’t behave in a certain way, it’s worth thinking twice: These days, a lot of the old rules no longer apply.
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