Why Apple's Cook will do better than Microsoft's Ballmer -- but still won't be good enough

In taking the reins after Steve Jobs stepped down at Apple, new CEO Tim Cook has a tough act to follow. You can expect that he'll be better at it than Steve Ballmer after taking over Microsoft from Bill Gates. But it still might not be good enough.

Before becoming CEO, Cook was chief operating officer, in charge of worldwide sales and operations, as well as managing its supply chain, services and support.

But he's already had a taste of running Apple, because he's run it during Jobs' various leaves of absence, including the most recent one that started this January. Apple has run during that time without a glitch. He's clearly a grounded, competent manager and leader.

One can't say that Microsoft has run without a glitch after Gates left and Ballmer took over. Under Ballmer's watch, Microsoft has lost out on just about every new key market -- the Internet in general, search, and mobile. He's done an admirable job of holding on to the markets in which Microsoft dominated, including Windows and office suites. But in a changing world, holding on to old markets just isn't good enough.

Of course, the Microsoft deterioration under Ballmer happened over a period of years, so there's a chance that a similar thing will happen to Cook at Apple. But Cook seems to be well-positioned to head that off, at least in the short run. Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg believes that there are plenty of people at Apple who can help fill Jobs' design and engineering smarts. Here's what Gartenberg has to say about that:

There is also more to Apple than Jobs, including great design and marketing teams that have helped Apple launch its successful products, said Gartenberg. He pointed as an example to Jonathan Ive, senior vice president for industrial design, who was the creative force behind the iPhone, iPad and iPod.

You should expect that for the next three years at least, and possibly beyond, Apple has planned a lineup of solid products.

After that is when Cook is likely to run into trouble. Jobs was a one-of-a-kind CEO, mixing charisma, design and engineering excellence, and P.T. Barnum-level hype. Cook has none of that. Merely having great design and marketing teams working for him won't be enough. Apple was built on Jobs' vision, and Cook is long on management smarts and doesn't seem particularly gifted with vision.

To an extent, Apple is like a Hollywood studio, built by launching blockbuster after blockbuster. Without someone to envision those blockbusters, it's not likely the company will continue its spectacular string of successes. And as far as I can tell, Cook is no blockbuster-builder.

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