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Tim Cook breezes through first year in post-Steve Jobs era

It's now been a year at the helm for Apple's top executive, who is under more scrutiny than just about any corporate honcho anywhere.

CEO Tim Cook at the debut of the iPhone 4S last fall.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

When Tim Cook assumed Apple's leadership from an ailing Steve Jobs one year ago today, investors reacted by pushing down the company's shares by more than $6.

One year later, the stock is up 44 percent, the company is about to introduce a new version of its popular iPhone, and Apple is now the most valuable company in the world based on market capitalization.

After two stints filling in as CEO while Jobs was ill, Cook has finally emerged from the shadow of Apple's legendary founder and earned his place on center stage as one of the business world's most influential chief executives.

Cook came on board at a critical juncture in Apple's history. The company was clearly riding high, but it also faced a number of serious challenges. Given the company's subsequent success, it's easy to forget that many Apple watchers once worried that Cook's appointment might threaten the company's meteoric growth rate.

That's yet to be seen, at least so far as the long-term outlook is concerned. But the past year of financial results have been Apple's best yet. With a replenished product line that has led to record-breaking sales in Mac computers, iPhones and iPads, Apple shares hit a record high this month. Analysts are also expecting one of the biggest holiday quarters yet to come, fueled by the potential release not just of a new iPhone, but another iPad model as well.

Apple CEO Tim Cook at the company's annual developers conference in June James Martin/CNET

"Apple has had a great year and the expectations around iPhone 5 are running very high," says Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. "We will likely see in a few weeks if the September 12 date rumor is confirmed what Apple will have in store. As a company Apple remained focused at a time when it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by external pressure and distractions."

Carrying the torch
One of those distractions is the company's aggressive legal strategy. It's certainly not unprecedented in the annals of Apple history, though its ferocity has amped up to a whole new level during Cook's first year as CEO.

The latest front is against companies making rival mobile devices, beginning with a patent suit against HTC in 2010. Later that same year Motorola sued Apple, which sued right back. But Jobs brought out the big guns 16 months ago when Apple accused Samsung of outright stealing its patented technology and using it in a new line of snazzy smartphones and tablet computers. It was a bold, and potentially hazardous move considering the two companies shared a multi-billion dollar business partnership with one another.

For the last month, Apple's attorneys have been making that "copycat" case to the nine jurors who will determine the verdict in the U.S. trial in San Jose. Across the country, another spat between the two companies is ramping up for another similarly high-profile court date in 2014. We'll find out whether that gambit was worth the effort as a decision is expected soon. In both cases, the outcome could have a dramatic impact on the two core parts of Apple's business strategy -- its products, and the patents that back them up.

Whether Apple prevails or not this time, rivals now know they face expensive lawsuits if their designs too closely resemble Cupertino's. "It's important that Apple not become the developer for the world," Cook said earlier in the year. "We need people to invent their own stuff." But Cook's not waging a holy war. He met with Samsung's chief executive three times to talk settlements, though those talks went nowhere.

Under a microscope
As he heads into his second year as the boss, Cook will be scrutinized as never before. Some still say that he's benefiting from product and technology decisions taken when Jobs was still in charge. One of these critics is Forrester CEO George Colony, who in a blog post back in April laid down a timeline for Apple's downfall.

"Apple's momentum will carry it for 24 to 48 months," Colony wrote. "But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation."

Cook at the D10 conference earlier this year.
Cook at the D10 conference earlier this year. Rafe Needleman/CNET

The first part of that prediction is still in progress, though some critics believe Cook has already made several noteworthy mistakes.

One of those was the hiring of John Browettto replace Ron Johnson as Apple's retail chief. Just a few months after starting, Browett -- previously the chief executive at UK electronics retailer Dixons -- attempted to rejigger the staffing at some of Apple's retail stores earlier this year, resulting in widespread rumors of cut hours and even layoffs. Apple responded earlier this month by saying it was trying out a new staffing formula and that it had since reverted to the previous system.

Apple's advertising, an area where Jobs was famously hands-on, has also come in for criticism. First, there was the use of celebrities in ads for the iPhone 4S, Apple's latest smartphone. After years of ad campaigns where the products and features were the centerpiece, some believed celebrity endorsements made the ads feel generic. That was compounded by criticism of a series featuring a fictional Apple retail store Genius helping seemingly bumbling consumers with their tech problems. Apple quietly pulled those ads from the Internet earlier this week.

Still, there are plenty of bright spots. Unlike Jobs, who maintained an often imperial distance, Cook came across as a more empathetic CEO when he traveled to Chinaamidst a controversy that targeted Apple for overseas labor practices. Cook even made a publicly documented stop at Foxconn, where Apple's products are manufactured -- something that Jobs never would have done.

Cook also installed a program for employees to get deeper discounts on the company's products, as well as a charitable donation program that matches donations made by employees up to $10,000 a year. Cook made his own donation of $100 million to Stanford's hospitals and Project RED.

Of course, the real test lies in Apple's long term performance, which is naturally closely tied to the popularity of its products. Apple hasn't expanded its product line since the iPad in 2010, choosing instead to refine what it already has. Though all eyes are on it to roll out a TV set, or expanded set top box sometime in the near future.

The worst that his critics can say is that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. True, the soft spoken Alabaman does not possess his predecessor's charisma or star power. Besides, competence, not star power is very well what could decide Apple's future in the second decade of the 21st century. And so far, the interim report card suggests that Apple remains in very good hands.

CNET,Yahoo Finance