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Tim Cook on the 'Basic Human Right' of privacy and the technology that excites him the most
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Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., arrives for the morning session of the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 12, 2019.
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images
Can you imagine people were worried about this guy?
Prior to taking over officially as CEO of Apple from co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011, Tim Cook was known in tech circles as a quiet tactician, skilled at driving operational efficiency. But at the time, many pundits worried that Cook wouldn’t be able match his predecessor’s charisma and carnival-barker showmanship.
Those doubts have faded with every new height the company hit, and Apple’s investors certainly have few complaints. Their shares have ballooned more than 1,000% since Cook took over, and the iPhone maker surpassed oil giant Saudi Aramco this year to become the world’s most valuable company.
Still, Cook insists it’s not just about the numbers. In an interview with TIME, he said that it’s important for Apple to lead not only in innovation, but also in efforts to make the world a safer, more equitable place.
The past year hasn’t been an easy one for the world’s most valuable company. In September alone, critics knocked Apple’s recently revealed iPhone 13 for being too iterative, a federal judge ordered the company to substantially change its App Store as part of an antitrust lawsuit brought by Fortnite maker Epic Games, and it delayed software aimed at fighting child pornography after privacy experts raised concerns about the company’s plan to scan users’ iCloud accounts for illegal content.
Cook played a starring role in App Store courtroom proceedings, defending the company on the witness stand, in part by arguing that Apple excludes rival app stores from the iPhone not to garner additional revenue, but to ensure user security. “We’re not thinking about the money at all, we’re thinking about the user,” he told the judge in an Oakland, Calif., courtroom in May.
Those words—“…not thinking about the money”—would surely illicit groans and eye-rolls coming from any other millionaire CEO, but uttered by Cook, with a good dose of serene Southern charm, they have potential to melt anyone’s icy skepticism. In our 2021 TIME100 issue, Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Nike, confirms that the Cook we see in public is the same man behind boardroom doors. Knight praises Cook’s wisdom and good judgement, writing: “What separates the good from the great are intangibles such as character, compassion, courage—adjectives that apply to Tim.”
Those qualities helped Cook earn the honor of being selected as a 2021 TIME100 honoree—and they were all on display when I spoke with Cook recently about his thoughts on leadership, corporate values and the tech that really excites him.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You just hit a big milestone recently, a decade as chief executive. Have you changed the way you manage in that time? Have you learned anything new in your role as CEO?
Maybe the top thing I’ve learned is that, I still have so much more to learn. I learned very quickly to remember that I had two ears and only one mouth, and to listen very carefully to people that I’m surrounding myself with, because I have some of the best and brightest people around me. And they’re smarter than I am. And we’re able to solve some really big issues and big problems by working together.
The pandemic itself in this last 18 months, has taught me that we’re not always in control of our destiny. We have to adapt and be flexible and agile, and move and learn very quickly. If you were to have told me 18 months ago, that we would still be sitting here today, I would never have guessed all the things we did accomplish over that course of time.
It’s become very popular among CEOs to talk about something called stakeholder capitalism–companies committing to doing better by their workers, by their customers and by the environment. Apple has been talking about these issues for a long time. Do you think it’s important now, for companies and for business leaders, to be upfront about where they stand on political and social issues?
Our values are infused deeply into the company. And so, as you point out, we’ve been talking about the environment for decades. Our goals have changed, and the activities have changed around those. They’ve gotten much bolder. But we’ve always cared deeply about the environment. We’ve always cared deeply about workers. We’ve set the highest standards for workers in our supply chain, of anybody in the industry. We’ve always cared deeply about our employees. They’re my most important constituency.
We’re in a period of time where some of the biggest problems of the world, like climate change as just one example, this is not going to get solved solely by government. This needs other constituencies and other stakeholders to move in the same direction and have public/private partnerships. Diversity and inclusion, racial equity and injustice, these are all things that we need the whole of society moving forward on.
And so, I think it’s more important than ever. I think more people expect it today as well, and I applaud that. I’m glad that our customers are expecting it, our employees are expecting it. And I see that happening across the industry and in many other industries. And I think it’s great for society in general.
How do you ensure that Apple is at the forefront of the latest ideas in those areas and stays part of the public conversation?
We pride ourselves in innovation. We’re always challenging ourselves to up our ante in environment, as just one example. If you look at[…]our journey on environment, we started with eliminating toxics. Years later, we ran our company on 100% renewable energy, being carbon neutral as a company. And now we’ve set a much bolder objective by 2030, to have our entire carbon footprint go away. This is not only the part within our company which we control today, but also our supply chain, and also our product usage at our customers. This is an incredibly bold objective. And we evolve and set these more bold and ambitious objectives, as time goes on.
Why do you feel like it’s important for Apple to remain a part of the public conversation around issues of equity, the environment and so on? Is it important for the business? Is it important for just the general image of the company?
It’s nothing to do with image and so forth. It’s about, we’re a collection of people in Apple that want to change the world for the better. We want to leave the world better than we found it. And to do that, you have to be a part of the conversation in areas where the policies of government intersect with your values. Racial equity and justice is a part of that. Diversity and inclusion is a part of that. Environment is a part of that. Supplier responsibility, is a part of that.
All of these things are key, in terms of the way that we present ourselves. And probably more importantly, we can be a ripple in the pond on these things. So, we can create a change that is much broader than any of us could individually do ourselves. If we stop changing the world or are stopped trying to put our ding in the universe, so to speak, I don’t think people would want to work here anymore.
Where do you think your personal comfort level with espousing these issues comes from? This is not something you learned in business school.
Yeah. You’re exactly right. There was no course on this, at least, at the time I was in business school. I’m not sure I can totally answer your question, but I think it’s rooted in the way I was brought up. In what I saw going on at the time I was being brought up.
Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. I was 8 years old at the time. There were all kinds of racial equity and justice issues in the environment at that time. As I got older and understood the environmental issues, you don’t have to look beyond yesterday or the day before to see the latest storms and the latest floods and the devastation that it’s causing. And it’s causing it disproportionately to people in need. So, I think all of these things. And of course, my background as a gay American, as well, has a lot to do with that. You learn to speak up about these things.
Let’s jump to a bit of technology talk. Apple recently made privacy a big part of the sales proposition for buying the company’s products. Why is this an important push—and should we expect to see more, along these lines?
Well, we believe privacy is a basic human right. It starts with that. And we believe that privacy is one of the most consequential issues of our time. I mean, it’s right up there, near the top of the list of things. And we see every day, people’s privacy being taken for granted, and them losing control. And we’re all about giving the user transparency and control.
We’ve come out with so many different features over time. This year we came out with application tracking transparency. Where, if apps want to track you across apps, they have to get your permission. It sounds really simple, but it’s pretty profound in terms of how the internet actually works. We came out with a privacy “nutrition label” for the app store, where an app has to describe what information they’re collecting and why they’re collecting it. Again, it sounds simple, but it’s a profound change. We’re working for the user. It’s not about a marketing slogan or a way to sell things. It’s a core value of ours.
Beyond Apple, just looking out there on the technology landscape, what excites you about innovations that you’re seeing today?
I get really jazzed about AI. AI today is in a number of products that you don’t really think about.
If you just take, from us, from the way that we’re recognizing your face, to your fingerprint. The way that we’re grouping photos together, the way that Siri works. I mean, AI is everywhere. And I see that we’re at the very early stages of what it can do for people and how it can make people’s lives easier.
I am really stoked about [augmented reality], and what AR can bring. And the overlay of the virtual world with the real world. But in a way that is not distracting from the physical world and your physical relationships. But enhancing your relationships, enhancing your collaboration.
Is that what some people are calling the metaverse?
There’s clearly different words out there; I’ll stay away from the buzzwords. We just call it augmented reality. But I am super excited about these things. I believe that technology can do so much good in the world. And of course it depends on the creator, and whether they thought through the ways it can be used and misused.
But mainly, I am so optimistic about all the things that can happen in our lives that free up time for more leisure activities and other things that we want to do in life.
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