Tim Cook, in a release to CNBC, described the book Haunted Empire: Apple after Steve Jobs partly: "This nonsense belongs with some of the other books I have read about Apple. It fails to capture Apple, Steve, or anyone else in the company."
My reading of Yukari Iwatani Kane's book (which is in print and on sale in New Zealand; I actually got it in iBooks, Apple's literary sales platform) doesn't support this view. It wasn't a biography of Jobs anyway, yet it does present an insight into a secretive company that's almost impossible to get any information about, despite the extent to which it is watched.
Yukari: Apple doesn't normally comment on individual books, so I think I clearly hit a nerve. The comment also came out in the early afternoon of the first day of sales, so it did make me wonder if he had actually read the book. If he did, I'm flattered that he thought it important enough to spend his work day reading it. :-0
MW: Were you disappointed with the backlash to your book from Apple commentators, or were you expecting it?
Yukari: Whenever anyone writes about Apple, emotions always run high. I'm very happy with where I've come out in my book. It wasn't meant to be a pro-Apple book or an anti-Apple book. It's rational assessment of Apple's position, based on my reporting of nearly 200 sources all over the world, looking at the issues from every angle possible.
MW: To me it seems Apple commentators had issues with your conclusions rather than with the main text of the book. Personally I found Haunted Empire richly-detailed and insightful. But I think it's because commentators - including myself - have a kind of emotional buy-in to Apple and it's really easy for us to feel defensive. What's your own position within this spectrum?
Yukari: That's a very insightful thought. You may be right - I'm in Japan right now promoting the book, and the Apple fans here have been very frank about their assessment of the book. They basically say what you say - that my book rings true to what they think as well, but it was very difficult for them to hear my conclusion and that they still cling to the hope that Apple will continue to be as great as it has been.
I personally am a user of Apple products, but as a journalist, I'm really not pro-Apple or anti-Apple. I saw Apple as a case study, and emotions really didn't factor into my reporting. I should mention however that when I started writing this book, I didn't know what my conclusion was going to be because I started working on it shortly after Steve died, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I understood how challenging it was for any hugely successful corporation to lose a founder-visionary, but I thought that if any company could get through it without missing a beat, it would be Apple. It was all of my reporting that led me to my conclusion, not the other way around.
MW: What do you think drives Apple's fandom? I can't think of any other brand that has anything like it on such a scale.
Yukari: I can't think of any other brand that has anything like it either. It's a huge source of strength and power for Apple. No one can begrudge them that. They've cultivated this over the years.
I do think though that there is a bit of a danger in the company focusing too much on the Apple fans. Apple's business caters to a mass market now, so not every user is an avid Apple fan. Yet, whenever Apple announces a new product or an ad or holds an event, the loudest, the most enthusiastic voices come from the fans. That's terrific for Apple, but if they use that as a barometer for what everyone thinks, I do think they will get a wrong read sometimes on how something is being received. When I say this, one example I'm thinking of is some of Apple's recent ads: the fans love them, but average consumers aren't impressed.
MW: You obviously have a huge depth of knowledge about your subject - I was particularly fascinated with the information about the factories in Asia. I haven't read such a personal exploration before. I found it moving to get an insight into those lives. How did gathering this information this affect you?
Yukari: Thank you so much! Those sections took a lot of time and work, so it's very gratifying to hear you say that.
I found the situation in China to be extraordinarily complicated. What I learned about conditions there was sad, but what I wanted to convey was much more complicated - I do think that Apple has a unique opportunity to set an industry-leading standard in its relationship with the suppliers, and obviously the factory worker is the one who bears the brunt of the pressures from Apple when it negotiates lower prices, but the company is a for-profit entity, not a charity. I understand why things that have happened have happened. I also think many of the problems in China are beyond Apple's ability to fix them (though it is Apple's reality regardless). As the sociology professor in Beijing, Ma Ai, told me, China is going through an industrial revolution.
As part of Apple's story, I thought all of it was relevant because it's something that they don't have much control over, yet they are being blamed for much of it and pressured to fix it so it's very much a challenge.
On the current CEO, Yukari says: I don't think it's an issue of strength of character. I think it's the difference of someone who is a founder and someone who isn't. Just think about the dynamics around the fact that Apple's board used to report to Steve, but Tim reports to the board.
MW: Where do you think Apple will be in two years?
Yukari: I think Apple will continue to be very successful from a sales and profit standpoint, but the sense that it has lost its innovative edge will continue. How Apple executes in the next couple of years, especially with respect to new product categories, will be crucial for determining where Apple will be in five, ten, fifteen years.
Read the full version of this interview on my redesigned Mac-NZ blog and see more of Yukari's personal take on Tim Cook.