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Tim Cook was named Apple's CEO 10 years ago. Here are 3 things he changed

The company we know as Apple looks and acts a lot like the one we all remember from the Steve Jobs era. But it's also very different.

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Tim Cook has made Apple his own.

James Martin/CNET

In 2012, less than a year after being named CEO of Apple, Tim Cook sat down for an interview with NBC News. He discussed the basics you'd expect about iPhones and Apple stores and even made a surprise announcement that the tech giant would begin assembling some Mac computers in Texas rather than China. Cook also made clear during the interview that, while he understood the responsibility he had to lead one of the world's most closely watched companies, he wasn't going to try to emulate its iconic co-founder, Steve Jobs.

"One of the things he did for me -- that removed a gigantic burden that would have existed -- is that he told me, on a couple occasions before he passed away, to never question what he would have done," Cook said. "Never ask the question 'what Steve would do' -- just do what's right."

Over the past decade, Cook has waded into culture and politics far more than Jobs ever seemed to do. In 2015, he came out as gay and started giving speeches decrying discrimination across the country. He even walked the tightrope as a social critic of Donald Trump's policies as president between 2017 and 2021 while attempting to protect Apple's business from harsh import tariffs.

All the while, Cook kept up Apple's slow and steady drumbeat of incremental innovation, leading teams that introduced seemingly small improvements over iPhones year after year. Now Apple in the Cook era sells some of the best-respected phone cameras in the industry. And it's one of the few device makers that builds the computer processing brains that power its phones and computers. Those chips, dubbed the A14 and M1 Apple Silicon chips, respectively, are considered among the best as well.

All this has helped to turn Apple into one of the most highly valued companies in the world. Wall Street puts the company at just under $2.5 trillion. And Apple's $57 billion in profits from $274.5 billion in revenues last year dwarf the $26 billion in earnings the company posted a decade ago, from $108.2 billion in revenue.

Here are three ways Cook changed Apple.

More political

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President Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook at a visit to a manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas, in 2019.

Getty Images

A decade ago, it was unusual to see a high-profile tech industry leader exchange anything but pleasant words with a world leader. But soon after Cook came out as gay, he started speaking out on a range of human rights issues. Not a year later, he penned a nearly 600-word piece that ran in The Washington Post addressing discrimination against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities.

"There's something very dangerous happening in states across the country," he wrote at the time.

Cook also joined 100 other tech executives from Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Yelp who criticized laws in Indiana and Arkansas written to support "religious freedom" but that critics fear will encourage discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

During Trump's time in office, Cook became a regular voice speaking out against the president's immigration moves. He criticized Trump's statements defending white supremacists and other extremists at a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. And Cook said Trump's plans to ban transgender people from serving in the military were wrong.

"We are indebted to all who serve," Cook wrote at the time. "Discrimination against anyone holds everyone back."

But Cook was also shrewd with Trump, attending summits with the president and even inviting him to the company's Mac Pro manufacturing plant in Austin, Texas.

"He's a great executive," Trump said once, according to a profile in The Wall Street Journal. "Others go out and hire very expensive consultants. Tim Cook calls Donald Trump directly."

It hasn't all gone smoothly. Most recently, Apple's faced backlash from employees frustrated by how executives are handling return-to-work policies amid the coronavirus pandemic. Though Apple has delayed its target date to return to the office to January next year at the earliest, executives have pushed employees to regularly come into the office.

Some employees have also accused the company's employee resources team of mishandling harassment, sexism, racism and other troubling issues among the company's roughly 147,000 employees. They've banded together on Twitter under the hashtag #AppleToo, and created a website to draw attention to their concerns.

Other companies, including Google, Facebook and Uber, have also struggled to meaningfully respond to similar criticism.

More products

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Apple's expanded its product lineup, in some cases with accessories.

CNET

Apple has long been known for its comparatively small product lineup. Under Jobs, Apple served up consumer laptops and desktops, with its MacBooks and iMacs, and offered professional laptops and desktops, with the MacBook Pros and Mac Pros. It sold several different types of iPods as well, but only one version of the iPhone each year.

Under Cook, Apple's expanded its product lineup to include two standard models of its iPhones, the $699 iPhone 12 Mini and $799 iPhone 12, which CNET's Patrick Holland said was one of the best phone we've ever reviewed. There are also two "pro" models, the $999 iPhone 12 Pro and $1099 iPhone 12 Pro Max. And there's the lower-cost $399 iPhone SE, which CNET called the best value for the dollar of any iPhone when it came out last year

Apple also sells at least two different variants of its Apple Watch, not including partnerships with Nike and Hermes, three different AirPods headphones and four different iPads. And it was Cook who pushed Apple into the smartwatch market in the first place.

It's hard to debate Apple's success with these products, and it appears the company won't be changing its approach much with its rumored upcoming iPhone 13 and iPads. And even though Apple's often criticized for seemingly minimal updates each year, experts say the differences become dramatic when comparing devices further back in time.

"This is what most people don't understand: Incremental is revolutionary for Apple," Chris Deaver, who spent four years in human resources working with Apple research teams, told The Wall Street Journal in a story published last year. "Once they enter a category with a simply elegant solution, they can start charting the course and owning that space. No need to break speed records, just do it organically."

More ambition

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Cook, announcing Apple TV Plus in 2019.

CNET

Perhaps the most dramatic changes Cook's made are to what Apple sells us. 

Jobs reveled in selling products people could touch and feel, focusing primarily on software as a means to make them work better. He referenced the computer scientist Alan Kay when introducing the first iPhone in 2007. "'People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware," Jobs said, quoting Kay. "Alan said this 30 years ago, and this is how we feel about it."

Under Cook, Apple's approach hasn't changed so much as it's expanded. To help Apple's products stand out, Cook in 2019 pushed his company to start offering services ranging from a $10 per month magazine and newspaper aggregation service called Apple News Plus to a $5 monthly gaming service called Apple Arcade, and most recently, $10 per month Apple Fitness Plus workout classes.

Cook promised that his company's $5 per month Apple TV Plus video subscription service would be "unlike anything that's been done before" when it launched in 2019. 

Apple hasn't said how many people pay for Apple TV Plus subscriptions but has increasingly drawn attention to its overall services business, which in the three months ended June 26 pulled in nearly $17.5 billion in revenue. That's more than Apple's Mac and iPad businesses combined. It's also up nearly 33% from the same time a year earlier despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has has upended billions of people's lives around the world.

"We're continuing to stay focused on supporting the global response to the pandemic and delivering the best products and services for people," Cook said on a July conference call with analysts. "Our greatest source of inspiration, isn't technology itself, but help people use it in their own lives in ways, great and small, to write a novel or to read one to care for an ailing patient or see a doctor virtually to track their heart rate on a jog or to train for the Olympics."