Tim Cook's keynote address: He's no Steve Jobs but that's just fine

Tim Cook, the trim, soft-spoken, Alabama-born CEO of Apple, just gave his first keynote address at the company's annual conference for digital developers—and a hush ran over the global village. Cook was credible. He was a little misty. And, to the guilty delight of everyone, he was not Steve Jobs.

The truth is, he was better.

In the digital age, keynote addresses are how you make your name as a would-be “visionary”—suitable, that is, for future e-book hagiography. Here's how the set piece is supposed to go: A stone-faced cyclist type strolls around with some modest PowerPoint graphics for visual interest, musing in a slow, cryptic deadpan about tech and money.

Doesn't it sound dreadful? Often it is. And yet this kind of oratory is to the TED set what guitar solos were to Isle of Wight types. (Tangent: What is it about Monterey, CA, that attracts both rock and tech jams?)

The reining keynote king is still, of course, the late Jobs, whose place Cook assumed at Apple. On stage, especially during his keynotes, Jobs cultivated a holy remove and Apple piety against which even banal requests for information from reporters seemed like the heresy of perverts. No wonder Apple fans and foes alike were waiting to see what Cook would do when he took the keynote stage at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in Monterey. The messiah is a tough act to follow.

How did Cook do? Just fine. An engineer son of an Alabama shipyard worker who specializes in ops and not design, Cook is neither an authoritarian nor an aesthete the way the Reed-dropout-cum-calligrapher Jobs was. Cook, a workhorse, didn't foreground his good taste as Jobs used to—either by kitting out the stage in Saarinen or by throwing up his favorite band names on PowerPoint slides. Instead, Cook stuck to numbers, and especially numbers pertinent to the App Store. He didn't talk narrowly about shiny devices made to his madman specs, then, but expansively about the achievements of Apple's contract developers.

Those numbers were plenty impressive, and included the wowee figure of 400 million (for how many credit-card accounts exist at the App Store). These numbers managed to throw the spotlight from Apple auterism to the developers in the audience—Apple's de facto personnel. Cook's whole talk (which he shared with other top Apple dogs) came to seem like a tribute to the developers. It's the developers, Cook made clear, who put the meaning in the sparkling hardware that Apple is leaving alone, at least for the time being.

After Apple's unsettling Big Sister figure Siri performed a comic opener from the big screen—“I see lots of familiar interfaces in the crowd. Looks like Instagram finally accepted Facebook's friend request”—Cook was, in retrospect, set up. Ice was broken! Had ice ever been broken at a Jobs-run event, the home of unbroken ice? Cook could act emotional and sometimes play the hayseed—and he did, as when he talked about his awestruck love of the company. Not being Jobs, his love for Apple is not self-love, and that's appealing.

Above all, Cook talked about “making a difference in peoples' lives” far more than satisfying his own artistic vision. There's something loose about the Cook agenda, but it works—and it suits our time, which demands more flexibility, humor and willingness to try partnerships than Jobs would ever have been up for.

The gravitas at Apple can be suffocating. Sure, there's a lot of money here, but it's never been clear why cool gimmicks that play music and movies and goofy texts have gotta come with so much piousness. That turns out to have been a Jobs thing. Cook—with his rags-to-riches story and his devotion to Auburn football—is more sentimental, and he teared up when thanking the developers.

Cook is just good. And the idea of integrating Facebook (the company Jobs once called “onerous”) deeply with iOS 6—the new and majorly tricked-out mobile brain that Cook introduced—shows an almost thrilling willingness to bust up the stultifying gridlock among the tech titans, reach out of the kingdom and, gasp, collaborate.

Of course, this team building sentiment didn't last long. Apple soon tossed Google Maps out of its App Store; Apple has set out to crush it with a design-y and ultra-slick map app of its own. Google retaliated swiftly and redirected searches for maps.apple.com to maps.google.com. (It has since fixed this “glitch.”) Cook had affected an attitude of gratitude and generosity that cast a nice but brief spell. The maps showdown came as business as usual. Simple meanness—the aloof and childish kind that Jobs pioneered. The style of which he was a visionary. That's more like it.

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