It’s not been the same since Steve died. Yes Apple has gone from strength to strength and Tim Cook seems to possess the ‘safe pair of hands’ everybody in Cupertino hoped for. But for all his success Cook is – how do I put this? – a bit boring.
Where is the drama? The heart-stopping launch events? The sudden resignations? The remarkable comebacks? The eternal enmities?
The profanity-laden meetings? The sad answer is that Apple, with its incremental ‘now even bigger’ approach to innovation and the unflappable Mr Cook at the helm, has become humdrum.
Those looking for entrepreneurial gleam and breathtaking feats of marketing genius should shift their gaze 10 miles north of Cupertino to Palo Alto. It is there that you will find Tesla, now the hottest company in the world, and its already legendary CEO Elon Musk.
At 43, Musk still has some way to go before he can fill Steve Jobs’ giant white and grey sneakers, but he is well on his way.
First, admire the branding skill of his team when they named their company Tesla. It would have been so easy to opt for something directly associated with the electric cars (Volt, for example) or something superficially green to reflect the turn from fossil fuels (Leaf) or use the kind of dreadful latinised name most companies now rely on (Prius). Naming his brand after the great inventor who took on the dominant forces of Edison and the mainstream hegemonic power industries was a decision that conferred style, substance and a bit of heritage on his new brand.
Next, admire Musk’s focus. As CEO and ‘product architect’ he has assiduously developed only a single model and then, and only then, begun work on the next model to follow. While General Motors drowns in a sea of marques and models, Tesla is essentially a one-vehicle company at any one time. First, in 2008, there was the Roadster. Then the Model S saloon car in 2012. The Tesla X will launch in 2015 with the Tesla III starting development next. The focus extends to product development too – not for Tesla the incremental approach of a hybrid electric/petrol car. Everything Tesla makes is 100% electric. No more gas.
Equally impressive is the gradual reduction in price of each Tesla model and the growing production numbers. Musk understands that it’s much easier to start small, exclusive and expensive and gradually become mass and accessible rather than attempt that narrative in the opposite direction. His ultimate goal is a $30,000 car that everyone can own, with Tesla as the market leader in electric cars.
And he is not afraid to do things differently to achieve that end. He recently announced that Tesla would share all its patents with other manufacturers to increase the evolution of electric cars. And when he came up against arcane American laws that prevent car manufacturers from selling their own cars direct to customers, he created a web-based ordering system that removes dealer networks. When battery technology appeared to limit the possible range of his vehicles, he set up nationwide Supercharger stations where Tesla drivers need only 20 minutes to recharge their vehicle for free. Customers can effectively drive anywhere in the US, Europe and Asia without ever needing to return home.
And then there is the man himself. He made his first millions from a web software company called Zip2, then his next fortune from PayPal. Next he created a private space exploration company called SpaceX which went on to win a billion-dollar contract with the US government to launch satellites into space. “Fuck Earth! Who cares about Earth?” he recently exclaimed to a startled journalist before explaining his long-term plans to allow mankind to live on other planets. Many have begun to position Musk as the 21st century equivalent of Henry Ford, but Ford was never the polymath that Musk is. Electric cars is just one of the amazing strings to his bow.
But it is Tesla and the inevitable arrival of affordable, enjoyable petrol-free driving for which Musk will surely make his name. It would be unfair to position Tesla as the new Apple, and Musk as the new Steve Jobs. Both may end up being a lot bigger.