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It's Tim Cook's Apple Now

The Tim Cook era at Apple emerged onto the public stage today in full force, and it bears subtle differences from Steve Jobs's Apple.

Asa Mathat

The Tim Cook era at Apple emerged onto the public stage today in full force, and it bears subtle differences from Steve Jobs’s Apple.

Jobs liked to say that Apple lived at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. He even appeared next to a huge slide showing a mock-up of the crossroad of streets bearing those names.

Tim Cook’s Apple appears headed to some different street corners — the intersections of technology and fashion, and technology and banking.

The company has entered new product categories — smartwatches and mobile payments — for the first time since the iPad was unveiled by Jobs in 2010. And the two new iPhone models it introduced at a lavish ceremony today were the first wholly new designs since Jobs’s death in 2011.

At the event today announcing those new products, it was crystal clear that Apple sees itself as a financial player and a company aligned with the fashion world, via the stylish watches and bands it showed off.

And it was also crystal clear that Cook is finally getting Apple moving forward again in a big way, and taking some different paths. In fact, it’s hard to remember when Apple, at least in recent years, has entered two big new product categories on the same day.

As I said, the difference is subtle. Under Jobs, Apple’s products were always, in their own way, premium fashion items. And the Jobsian Apple built a huge e-commerce business. Both are, in fact, the bases on which the new initiatives are built.

Plus, Cook isn’t renouncing “liberal arts” — a catchall term Jobs used for things like music, photos, videos and graphic design. In fact, he ended the day with a mini-concert by U2.

Of course, all of these new initiatives are meant to achieve the same goals Apple has had for years: Creating an ecosystem of devices, software and services that would induce people to own multiple Apple products. You won’t be able to use Apple Pay or the Apple Watch with Android or Windows phones.

But, in firmly stepping out from Jobs’s shadow, Tim Cook and his lieutenants are heading in new directions, ones they consider major inflection points for the company.

As CEO since 2011, Cook has presided over a number of events and product introductions, but this was different. By holding it at the same college auditorium where the original Mac and iMac were introduced decades ago, the Cook regime at Apple was saying that these were historic products.

The whole event was a masterpiece of presentation, brimming with that old Apple confidence and showmanship, right down to Cook’s first-ever onstage use of Jobs’s famous “One more thing …” phrase to preface the unveiling of the smartwatch.

In noting the significance of the location — Cupertino’s Flint Center for the Performing Arts — Cook told the large, cheering crowd: “We think, at the end of the day, you will agree that this, too, is a very key day for Apple.”

Some may disagree, since other companies did payments and smartwatches first.

But Apple has often waited to enter new categories until after others had tried and failed to achieve mass popularity. Even the Mac was at least the third computer to use graphical icons and a mouse — though it was the first to catch on. There were limited MP3 players before the iPod, rudimentary smartphones before the iPhone and years of failed tablet efforts before the iPad.

What Apple has done so well, and hopes to do again, is to sit back, watch others flail, then come in with a few key innovations in a beautifully integrated product that suddenly captures the public’s interest.

As with a movie studio, these products then become franchises, which then spawn sequels that get better, and sell better, for years.

So, will these new products and services do that? Will Apple crack the code on payments and wearables? Is this Apple’s “best product pipeline” in 25 years, as Eddy Cue, an Apple senior vice president, declared at our Code conference this spring?

While I haven’t reviewed or tested the new products, I do think today was a big day for Apple, and that Apple Pay and the Apple Watch stand a very good chance of following Apple’s pattern of popularizing products that haven’t caught on before.

The payment system offers convincing privacy and security features, and a broad partnership with top banks, credit card companies and merchants. The watch — which won’t appear until 2015 — has a rich set of features, a simple and clever user interface, and is the first smartwatch I’ve seen that people wouldn’t feel geeky wearing, beating out the runner-up, Motorola’s Moto 360.

Even the new iPhones are likely to be a win, though they are catching up to a large-screen trend that Samsung and other rivals championed. Why? Because it finally gives Apple a competing product in two new phone sizes, and because only these new iPhones — not older models — will work with Apple Pay.

But it all comes down to execution, something Jobs was famously good at squeezing out of Apple. And that’s the next test for Tim Cook’s Apple: Actually making good on today’s promises of exciting products and services.

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