September 8, 2022

How Innovation, Product Design, and Product Development Have Changed at Apple “After Steve,” with Tripp Mickle

Episode 185 of The Innovation Engine podcast.

It’s undeniable that Apple is at the top of its game. In 2018, Apple became the first company valued at $1 trillion, doubling that to $2 trillion in 2020 and reaching $3 trillion in early 2022. Despite its overwhelming success, Apple has also fundamentally changed in the last decade without the innovative leadership of Steve Jobs.

For this episode of the podcast, we speak with Tripp Mickle, a reporter with The New York Times and the author of After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul. Prior to The New York Times, Tripp worked for more than eight years at The Wall Street Journal, where he wrote extensively about Apple’s business, executive leadership, the new products it launched (and the ones left on the design studio floor), and much more. His extensive sources both inside and outside the company allow him to lift the veil on this notoriously secretive company.

Tripp discusses how the absence of Steve’s balancing role led to an imbalance between Apple’s creative innovations and its operational excellence, and how the company’s incredible growth has necessitated a new approach to product design and product development.

Episode Highlights:

  • How Tim Cook and Jony Ive led the renaissance at Apple by combining artistic creativity with operational excellence
  • The delicate balance of commerce and creativity, and what happens when that balance gets thrown off
  • Anecdotes around Jony Ive’s eye for detailed perfection
  • The products Apple has struggled to bring to market
  • The symbolic significance of Apple’s new office building


Listen To The Episode

About The Innovation Engine

Since 2014, 3Pillar has published The Innovation Engine, a podcast that sees a wide range of innovation experts come on to discuss topics that include technology, leadership, and company culture. You can download and subscribe to The Innovation Engine on Apple Podcasts. You can also tune in via the podcast’s home on Spotify to listen online, via Android or iOS, or on any device supporting a mobile browser.


Chris Hansen: [00:00:03] This is The Innovation Engine Podcast from 3Pillar Global. Your home for conversations with industry leaders on all things digital transformation, platform modernization, and corporate innovation.

Chris Hansen: [00:00:24] Welcome back to The Innovation Engine. For this episode, we’re pleased to talk with New York Times reporter and author Tripp Mickle about his book, After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul.

Tripp joined The New York Times earlier this year after spending more than eight years with Wall Street Journal, where he wrote extensively about Apple’s business, its executive leadership, the new products that launched and some famous ones that didn’t, and much more. Tripp has developed an extensive set of sources both inside and outside the company in nearly half-a-decade reporting on it, allowing him to lift the veil on the notoriously secret company in bulk and print and in his new book.

Tripp, welcome to The Innovation Engine and thanks for being with us today.

Tripp Mickle: [00:01:03] Thanks for having me.

Chris Hansen: [00:01:04] Let me start by asking you about the two main characters you featured prominently in the book, not surprisingly post-Steve Jobs: Apple CEO, Tim Cook, and former Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive, who left the company for good in 2019. Why is the story of these two people in particular so fitting to tell the story about how Apple changed since Steve died?

Tripp Mickle: [00:01:29] It’s the type of thing you could argue is a little reductive when put in the context of the fact that they have 154,000 employees there. But, I mean, these are easily the two most important figures at the company over the past decade and, really, since Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

And if you go back to that point and you start there, when Jobs returned, Apple was nearly bankrupt. And the reason that it rebounded and became such a dominant player in global business is because of Jony Ive on one side and Tim Cook on the other. They were really kind of the two poles balanced by Steve Jobs that made Apple such a success.

Jony is the right brain creative person who helped Steve Jobs come up with the product ideas and the product design that lent itself to things like the white earphones and ear buds that were in the iPod that became such a cultural sensation when they were in the advertising.

Tim Cook, on the other hand, comes in, inherits this mess of an operations system at Apple and fixes it. I mean, they had inventory and computers piling up. They were like spoiled vegetables going bad. He comes in and he reorganizes the operations team. He begins using China to begin manufacturing a lot of their product. And they were able to make at at a low price what Jony Ive is able to design that can command a high price.

So, this is kind of the yin and the yang of Apple. Really, it’s design brilliance and creativity balanced by operational excellence.

And so, when Steve Jobs died, that balancing force that Jobs provided to those two sides of Apple is lost. And what Apple spent the better part of the past decade doing is figuring out how to function without its balancing force.

Chris Hansen: [00:03:38] It’s so interesting to me. I’m just wondering, if you take Steve Jobs out of the equation – I mean, probably once a month I send around some Steve Jobs video on innovation or some quote from Jony Ive about design. With Tim Cook, with Jony Ive now gone – I mean, it’s thought of as one of the more innovative companies, it’s sort of  the benchmark for innovation – does it still hold that reputation? Is it still possible that they can remain innovative in a post-Steve, post-Jony world with Tim Cook?

Tripp Mickle: [00:04:17] The spirit of innovation is still alive at Apple. The execution of that innovation or the execution of the ambitions of the company when it comes to its innovations has faltered. Easily you can look at some of the projects they have undertaken over the past decade and can see evidence of that.

They were slow to adapt to the development of the smart speaker market, Amazon beat them there. But even when Apple decided to enter that market, typically what it does, it comes in after somebody as like a first mover. And it introduces a product that is so much superior to what somebody else has created that it becomes the most popular product in a particular category.

Or in the case of the iPhone, maybe they don’t sell more iPhones than Android phones, but they rake in 95 percent of the profits. So, it becomes the most profitable product in the category.

They haven’t really been able to do that as effectively in the past decade. Really the last product you can point to and say they that did with was the Watch, and that was driven by Jony and his aspiration to create a smartwatch that can free people of their dependency on their iPhone. You can quibble with the success of the Watch, but there’s no doubt that that was kind of the last new product category that the company embarked on and introduced. In a span of a decade, that’s a lot less than what they did under Jobs himself.

Chris Hansen: [00:05:50] Yeah. I know. People have mentioned the Watch as now being unsuccessful. But isn’t it the best selling watch in the world? I mean, it came into a category that was analog, made it digital, and is the best selling product in that particular category. So, it seems very Apple to me in that sense. But of course not the iPhone.

Tripp Mickle: [00:05:50] Right. Right. No. A hundred percent you’re right. Yeah, it’s not the iPhone in the sense that there are far fewer people who are willing to buy a watch and put it on their wrist than feel like they absolutely have to have a smartphone in order to function in society, because you need to satisfy your personal urge to be on social media or you need to do business, work and respond to emails or Slack, like people have to have one of those in their pocket. They don’t need a fitness watch or a health watch or whatever. It’s really a case by case type situation where some people decide they need it, and many people don’t.

Chris Hansen: [00:06:54] I’m the poster child there, I do not wear a watch but you do. I have my iPhone next to me. I’m talking on a MacBook, and I have my AirPods in, so I am definitely the reason why there’s probably a case for the Watch not being successful. But I totally get your point there.

So, one of the things in the book which I found really interesting is the different ways in which innovation has happened under Tim Cook. So, under Steve, innovation took the form of product innovation. Under Cook, innovation happens, at least for me as an Apple product buyer, seems to be happening more incrementally. And Tim seems, as you mentioned, the focus is more on innovation coming in areas like supply chain. Are things much more operational now at Apple? And is that why perhaps you argue that it’s lost its soul a little bit? That innovation is not at the forefront, that sort of the operational excellence at Apple has taken more of a prominent role?

Tripp Mickle: [00:08:01] Yeah. I’m going to straddle what you’re saying a little bit and say that, yes, the company is more focused on operations but it’s more focused on operations by necessity. If you think about it, when Steve Jobs died, they were making about 20 million iPhones a year. Now, they’re making 200 million a year, roughly.

When you have to make that many of any one product exactly the same and to a high level of sophistication, you need to start earlier in the development process, which invariably means some options for innovation are foreclosed.

There’s a moment that gets a brief mention in the book that shed some light on this, and it’s this time period when Jobs was still there and this was related to the iPod, which they were also making many millions of. And Jony Ive had an idea for how to change the design of the iPod that he felt would really revolutionize the product and breathe new life into it late in its life span.

But he had it two weeks after the time period when the deadline had passed for a product to begin being assembled on manufacturing lines in China. I mean, literally, by two weeks. And that meant it had to wait an entire year, which meant that by the time that idea would be introduced, it would likely be stale. So, it was just abandoned.

And those are the types of constraints you’re dealing with when you’re that much larger as a company, you’re serving that many more customers. And that’s been one of the challenges that has forced Apple to be more operationally sophisticated in order to introduce the innovation that it has.

To your second question about the title, yeah, I mean, that is what the book is getting at a little bit, is that because of the way the company changed, there are moments like I just spoke about with Jony Ive, where he can’t be as creative as he would have been when the company was smaller and more nimble.

So, in a way, as a consequence of the company size, creativity, which once led to commerce, now plays second fiddle. It’s almost like commerce is what dictates when creativity can happen. And that anecdote around the iPod really crystalizes that in a lot of ways.

Chris Hansen: [00:10:28] You mentioned this in a different way in the book, there was an anecdote about how the company was structured under Steve,that it was a relatively flat organization with very few VPs. And that structure, of course in a smaller company leads to more innovation. How has that structure changed since Steve’s death and Tim has taken over?

Tripp Mickle: [00:10:28] The structures remain the same. I mean, it’s still flat. I think Tim Cook has something on the order of, like, a dozen plus direct reports. The difference is that Steve Jobs was very much the autocrat who was making decisions on what people should be doing and very final about that. I mean, he was dictating where product should go. He was the one who was bouncing between divisions such as software, hardware, and design. And then, stitching together what those three groups were doing in a way that gave you a kind of seamless product experience when something was introduced.

If you think of the company as a circle, like, Steve put the creative divisions of the company at the center and he lived at the center of those creative aspects, hardware, software, design, et cetera, marketing.

Tim Cook was on the outside in operations, you know, a second circle outside. And, basically, what happens when Steve dies and Tim Cook becomes CEO is that operations, the outside ring, goes to the center of the company to areas that it just didn’t know that well.

And as a result, Tim Cook, who Jobs himself described as not a product person, makes the decision that what we have to do is build consensus among these creative leaders that we have that Steve worked to kind of coral and direct forward, these people are going to have to coral themselves and direct themselves forward. And so, it becomes product development more by committee. And that’s a big fundamental change in the way Apple operates.

One example that speaks to the challenges, I guess, that rose as a consequence of this is, there’s a moment where after Amazon introduced the Echo speaker, Apple is exploring the idea of developing its own smart speaker and its hardware. And it’s product design leader, Dan Riccio, spins up kind of an option for it, brings it in, shares it with Tim Cook.

Tim Cook asked him a bunch of questions about that. And Dan leaves thinking, “Well, I guess he’s not sold on doing this. He just asked a ton of questions and didn’t say, ‘Okay. Let’s go.'” And so, he spins the project down. And several months later, he gets an email from Tim Cook about Amazon’s success with the Echo and realizes, “Oh, crap. He was just asking because he wanted to know about this. We need to spin this thing back up.”

And that’s kind of the challenge for a company that was used to getting clear direction at the outset. It’s now having to try to find its own direction internally in ways that it wasn’t doing before under Jobs.

Chris Hansen: [00:13:59] There’s always great anecdotes about Apple. I mean, there’s Aaron Sorkin screenplays written about Apple over the years. And you had a few in your book that I thought were great and awesome to share on the podcast. So, there’s one in particular about Jony Ive and a bucket of red paint. Could you share that anecdote with folks listening?

Tripp Mickle: [00:14:23] Yeah. I think it’s important to consider the anecdote in context of the way colleagues looked at Jony Ive. They kind of wondered if he had x-ray vision. And part of the reason was he could just see things that they thought were invisible to them. And there’s this moment that I described in the book where Jony travels with a couple of colleagues to Japan to review a manufacturer’s work on a laptop.

And they bring in the laptop top part, it’s the base of the laptop. And Jony looks at it and his hands start to tremble and shake a little bit. And one of his colleagues realizes, “Oh, crap. He’s really not happy with these guy’s work and he’s about to unload on them.” And he wants to head off Jony before Jony just rips these nice Japanese manufacturers a new one.

And he grabs a red pen and he hands it to Jony and says, “Jony, why don’t you just circle the flaws in this and I’ll just work with them to correct the errors. No big deal. It’s fine.” And Jony turns and looks at him, he goes, “I got a better idea. Why don’t you give me a bucket of red paint, dip this in it, and I’ll wipe off what’s right?” And the guy, meanwhile, is looking at the part and he’s seeing no imperfections whatsoever. But to Jony, it was just a purely flawed part. And that was the kind of precision and precise eye that he would bring to some of the manufacturing elements and product that they were developing.

Chris Hansen: [00:15:59] I totally appreciate Jony Ive for that. I’ve been in that situation, definitely not with hardware, but with presentations where I think people think I’m insane because I’ll see something that’s not centered or aligned, or a font that’s the wrong size. And I’ll be like, “What’s wrong with that? How can you not see that there’s something wrong there?” So, he’s definitely my spirit animal there.

There’s another story that you had – similar – where he was at an airport bar and saw a bunch of imperfections, again, where other people would not have noticed that. Can you share that anecdote as well?

Tripp Mickle: [00:16:35] Yeah. They’re on a trip back after several weeks during SARS working in Shenzhen on assembly lines. And they’re in the Hong Kong Airport at a bar, and it’s a 30 foot bar, pure silver metal. And Jony looks down and he sighs and looks at the person beside him and he says, “I can see every seam in this bar.” And the guy sitting beside him looks down the bar and looks at Jony and looks down at the bar again, and he can see nothing. You just see pure smooth metal from one end to the other. And sympathetically says to Jony, “Your life must be fucking miserable, man.” Because he just had a way of seeing things that nobody else could see.

There’s one other one that doesn’t get quite the thrust that it should in the book that I heard about. But when Jony sets up a studio near his home in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, he puts a pure glass table on what amounts to, like, four legs. So, just imagine glass, I don’t know how thick, but like a conference table, pretty large, on just four legs. And he would walk in, and at a certain point several – I don’t know – months after it had been there, maybe a-year-and-a-half, and would say, “The table is bowed, we need to replace it.” And people would come in and stare at this table like, “What is he seeing?” They couldn’t even see that it was bowed a centimeter. But nobody wanted to argue with him because they also knew that he had more of a precise eye for things than they did. And they would just go ahead and replace the glass table and bring something new in.

Chris Hansen: [00:18:17] I love that. So many feels about that right now because I totally get that feeling that you have of things just being slightly off. And I’d probably adjust pictures that are hanging on my walls every single day because it just seems off by, like, half-a-centimeter. I’m going to have to adjust it. So, I get that. Maybe OCD in some cases is a good thing.

So, we talked about innovation. We talked about sort of the changes. Now, Apple doesn’t seem to be putting out as many products, at least at the clip, or the perception is there are not as many new, innovative products. One of the things I’ve heard about for a long time, and it’s been mentioned in the press for years, definitely as it relates to innovations in the electric car space with Tesla, is the concept of the Apple Car, code name Project Titan. Where does that sit?

I hate Apple CarPlay, I’ll say that it’s one of the worst products that Apple makes. But if you’re thinking about Apple Car versus the first foray into the car with Apple CarPlay, like, where does this particular project sit and what is it?

Tripp Mickle: [00:19:32] At this point the latest reporting and the best reporting, which is from Bloomberg on it, they had forecast that something won’t arrive before 2025. But they’re continuing to work on the car.

In the meantime, they introduced a revised version of CarPlay earlier this year. You may have seen that, where they’re proposing that it take over the entire dash of a car so that it provides everything from the speed the car is driving, to the stereo, and some of the apps that you might access while you’re in the vehicle right now. A very different experience than what they’ve provided historically from a CarPlay perspective.

The project itself began circa 2015 as Apple was rotating out of its work on the watch. Engineers were looking for something big to take on. And that’s really what most people go to Apple to do. And this was something that they decided to embark on. But it became kind of a project that was challenged by differing views about the direction it should go. And that’s indicative of what’s happened without that kind of guiding force and kind of final voice that Steve Jobs was.

Basically, on one side, you had a group of engineers who wanted to essentially disrupt the electrical vehicle market that Tesla was building at that time and out flank Tesla in terms of owning that market by introducing a superior product.

On the other side, you had Jony Ive championing the idea of, “Well, look. If we’re going to do a car, it needs to be fully autonomous. Like, why are we going to mess with a car and just introduce what already exists? We need to get out ahead and be early with a superior technology.” And in 2015, you know, a lot of people were optimistic that full autonomy would be here by 2021.

I mean, the president of Lyft famously predicted that we’d all be riding around in robot taxis by 2021. That has not happened. In fact, we’re still a long ways off from realizing those AI techniques that would allow us to have full autonomy. And so, the project has been mired in this kind of tension between differing views for some time and never gotten the full clear direction that it would need to prosper and deliver a product.

Chris Hansen: [00:22:08] Yeah. I heard so many things there and so many comments to make. One is, I mean, I saw an ad this morning. I don’t even know who it was in the ad or whether it’s an organization or person, where they’re trying to get Congress to stop autonomous vehicle software from Tesla. They said, “It’s the worst piece of software and it should be stopped.” I was just so confused by it the first time I ever saw it.

So, that was interesting that it is one of those things where maybe even the technology and the software is there. But there’s a lot of other considerations that have to be made including political and sort of bank insurance and liability decisions.

The other thing is just thinking about CarPlay and how that’s been extended, I mean, that is not the sort of playbook for Apple. Their software usually is on their own devices, maybe it’s why I don’t like CarPlay now. But the new CarPlay integrating fully into somebody else’s hardware in an automobile is so interesting to me. I’m really excited by it. But, man, that is a daunting product for Apple to take on, to take over the full experience in a car and hardware that they didn’t create, that’s not centralized through Apple, it’s just really interesting to me. I’m curious to see how that goes.

Tripp Mickle: [00:23:30] Yeah. Not to mention controversial for the auto industry as well. Do you want to give over kind of – I don’t know –

Chris Hansen: [00:23:30] The OS for your car.

Tripp Mickle: [00:23:30] Right. Right. Like, the brain for your car to Apple, I don’t know that you want to do that. And that’s where things should get interesting in the next few years, as you see whether or not Apple, by virtue of iPhone availability, has more power and sway over automakers than automakers have over their own customer base.

Chris Hansen: [00:24:03] So interesting. I’m curious to see how it all plays out, especially if they’re going to actually come out with a car at some point.

So, maybe something that seems less or maybe more brick and mortar or not necessarily on the topic of normal conversation at Apple, but they did design – and Jony Ive was a large part of this design – this large headquarters, new headquarters in Cupertino. And that was prior to there being a pandemic. Do you think that that new headquarters was a distraction or a waste of money by Apple? Or do you see it being something that could actually enable innovation and collaboration?

Tripp Mickle: [00:24:43] That headquarters as the book spells out is so intertwined with Jobs himself, that it became something that they almost had to do. I mean, you know, in a way we think about Apple as a company. But, also, for the people who worked there more closely with Jobs, it can feel like a family, right? And so, when he died and this was his kind of, essentially, dying wish that they build this headquarters, there was little choice for the people who remained but to fulfill that dream of his.

The timing of building a $5 billion campus, opening it right before pandemic is less than ideal, obviously, right? Not to mention you’ve got all the insane cost of living in the Bay Area and complications along those lines. Plus, Apple was already outgrowing the campus as it was building it. In fact, Tim Cook at a certain point during the development of the campus decides to increase headcount and made desks closer together because they needed to. They were just hiring that many people. And they didn’t anticipate that.

Did it distract the company? It certainly became a product in and of itself. Does that zap energy from other things that the company could be doing? You could argue that the design team that spent a good bit of time focusing on how rounded and polished the elevator buttons were could have been using that time on developing, let’s say, this AR headset that is on the horizon. You could also argue that, you know, multitasking is not beyond these people and they can devote time to elevator buttons and headsets, which is what they chose to do.

The challenge is we haven’t seen the headset, so all we can do is judge the elevator buttons, which is a beautiful elevator. It’s really kind of amazing because instead of an elevator that’s boxy like you’re accustomed to with right angles, it’s absolutely got curved corners in all the sides, around the buttons, and it feels like you’re riding on an iPhone.

That all was a sacrifice from the company, you know, getting that precision and that kind of excellence inside a building meant a degree of opportunity cost for the company in terms of other work it could have been doing.

Chris Hansen: [00:27:09]

So, Tripp, this is the fun part, not that the rest of this wasn’t fun, but this is the fun part of our conversation. We’re going to do this a little special today. We’re going to do the Apple version of our speed round questions given the topic. So, I think I know the answer to this question, but given the subject matter, iPhone or Android?

Tripp Mickle: [00:27:50] iPhone.

Chris Hansen: [00:27:50] Of course. Makes sense. Other than the, perhaps, Walter Isaacson book on Steve Jobs, who are your must read or must listen to tech journalists?

Tripp Mickle: [00:28:03] Oh. Must read are Shira Ovide and Mike Isaac of The New York Times, Eliot Brown and Kirsten Grind at The Wall Street Journal. Must listen, I love Vergecast. I’m a big fan of Nilay and David Pierce.

Chris Hansen: [00:28:21] Awesome. It makes sense, The Journal and The Times. They play a large part there. I’ll ask this question in two different ways, you can answer whichever you like. So, what is the oldest piece of Apple technology you own? Or you can answer this, what’s the oldest piece of Apple technology that you remember using? Or you can answer both too.

Tripp Mickle: [00:28:41] I remember using a Mac to play  Oregon Trail way back in the day. And then, I’ve still got an old iPod Touch in a drawer here, for sure.

Chris Hansen: [00:28:55] Very cool. Yeah. Mine is going to date me. I remember using an Apple IIc and also I played Oregon Trail, interestingly. And then, I would say my oldest piece that I still have is – I might have an original iPod somewhere. I definitely have an original iPhone somewhere in a drawer, which is funny that we keep and hold on to these things.

We answered this question before but I’ll ask again, are you wearing an Apple Watch as we speak?

Tripp Mickle: [00:29:27] I am wearing an Apple Watch. But the reason, the first one that I bought, I bought before I went in to interview Tim Cook for the first time, because I didn’t want him to ask me why I didn’t have one and waste time talking about the Apple Watch. So, I just went ahead and got one. It was kind of to make sure that I can maximize my time in questions with Tim Cook the first time I interviewed him.

Chris Hansen: [00:29:55] That’s awesome. Yeah, I remember I just worked in different industries before, and I remember if we were going in to pitch Lenovo, we’d have to buy a Lenovo laptop to make sure, even if we were using Mac, you have to go in to make sure that you had a Lenovo when you go in to pitch Lenovo. And I think that’s so important when you’re trying to connect with folks, make sure that you use technology.

That’s something I tell my team all the time, is make sure if you’re going to make any spelling mistakes, do not spelling mistakes or pronunciation mistakes on the actual clients that we’re going to speak to.

Tripp, this has been awesome. I’m such an Apple fan. I have been since the Apple IIc, so a very old Apple fan. So, I really appreciate your time today. I love the book. And thanks for spending your time on The Innovation Engine.

Tripp Mickle: [00:30:44] Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Jennifer Ives: [00:30:50] This has been an episode of The Innovation Engine, a podcast from 3Pillar Global. If you have questions, comments, or guest suggestions, email us at