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Apple Will Be Just Fine Without Steve Jobs

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541321286_7b398dab10_m1Let’s say Steve Jobs retires next year. So what?

I’m one of those in the lonely camp that doesn’t believe Jobs is Apple (s aapl) and Apple is Jobs. Or that when he disengages from Apple the wheels must necessarily fall off.

Jobs bought Pixar in 1986, and while he wasn’t nearly as closely involved with it as he has been at Apple, he assembled a team that helped the company thrive even after it was sold to Disney two years back. Since then, Pixar delivered the Oscar winning “Ratatouille” as well as “Wall-E” (Nos. 144 and 34, respectively, on IMDB’s list).

If Jobs hasn’t done the same at Apple, he’s failed at one of the key tasks of a great CEO. I don’t think that’s his style. Yet this week, the media once again turned the spotlight onto Jobs’ health after the company said he won’t appear at MacWorld, that Apple is essentially snuffing what has become a tedious knockoff of a Galaxy Quest convention. Any other company, and it would have ended at the headline.

But Apple isn’t any other company. It’s Apple. Therefore Jobs must be dying. Therefore the stock loses $6.6 billion in two hours.

One day we’ll all look back on this and shake our heads. Rarely has so much attention been paid to the health of an individual who was not the head of state or a religion. What if Jobs is fine, and just wanted no part of the obscene gadget fetishism, which tech conferences in general have become, when millions were losing their jobs and homes? Isn’t that kind of the opposite of dying?

The voluble world of Apple-gazers has been cleft between the virulent fanatics and the desperate naysayers (which the fanatics have in good part created). All this drama overlooks two boring things: a) Apple is a company, and b) Steve Jobs is a businessman.

Apple doesn’t need Macworld anymore. It did for years, when Jobs would step out like Gandalf and save our butts from the ill forces of Mordor. Now Apple rules online music, and Mordor — read Microsoft (s msft) — is greatly weakened.

Apple has blossomed into a global, mainstream brand, and the fanatics who helped get it there are suddenly less useful. Which brings us to point b.

Until now, Steve Jobs never showed discomfort with the mystique, the legend, the icon that he had become as the man who created and later saved Apple. He totally dug it, but he dug it totally as a businessman. His fan base grew passionate, grew vocal and then — in late 2008 — grew outmoded. Apple simply didn’t need them anymore. It could expand on its own powers.

Besides, this whole mystique thing was starting to backfire. The idea that Jobs and Jobs alone could keep Apple successful is kind of demeaning to the other 32,000 employees there. If Apple did suffer after Jobs’ departure, many of the most talented of those people would found startups, some of which would eventually accomplish insanely great things like Apple has.

Beyond Apple’s stunning success this decade, the success of those new startups would be the ultimate compliment to Steve Jobs’ skills as a corporate leader.

Photo courtesy of acaben via Flickr.

31 Responses to “Apple Will Be Just Fine Without Steve Jobs”

  1. Comparing Jobs interest in Apple to Pixar is laughable and undermines anything else you have to say. Seriously what an absurdity. He bought Pixar as a favor to George Lucas much as anything. Apple on the other hand is his lifeblood and he is deeply embedded in the DNA. Even when he was not there. He did not start Pixar he just owned it at the right time.

  2. @jason I totally agree — Steve Jobs life is Apple, will not retire, ever, certainly not for another two decades. Unless he gets retired by the forces of nature, he isn’t going anywhere.

    @Kevin Kelleher — Yes Apple has a very strong team and can flourish for years without Jobs — but Steve Jobs is irreplaceable, and it is unlikely that Apple will prosper as much without him over the next decade as it would with him.

    @Alice — The evidence on the ground points to just the opposite. I was in the 5th Ave. Apple store yesterday afternoon (buying my wife an iPhone, her T-Mobile contract ran out on Friday). There was a big line outside in the freezing cold, the place was unimaginably crowded, there was a big line at the registers inside, even though many shoppers (like us, we had made a “personal shopper” appointment) didn’t pay at the registers. People may be cutting back in a lot of areas, but they don’t seem to be cutting back on Apple products.

    It does make a certain amount of sense: people buying $300 computers are the ones suffering the most in the current economy. People buying $2000 computers and iPhones are less vulnerable — thus vendors of cheap PCs/phones will get hit first. Also, Apple sells heavily to college students, who aren’t going to stop needing a new laptop because the economy went bad.

  3. Apple will be fine, but it will be hit hard in the recession, more so than its competitors. Apple products are considered luxury products to many, in these hard times people will opt to but the cheaper products.

    I think Apple will survive tho, its just going to be difficult for them for the next couple of years.

  4. By Daniel Lyons | NEWSWEEK
    “He can’t write a line of software code. He is, by most accounts, a terrible manager, prone to tantrums and abusive tirades, almost unbearable to work for. But he is also a genius —a relentless perfectionist with a keen eye for design and a Zen master’s sense of which features to leave out.”

  5. Kevin Kelleher


    “The illogical decisions are what have made Apple successful.”

    That’s been crucial to Apple’s resurgence. But it must have seeped into the company’s culture by now, not residing in the mind of one person. When Jobs left Apple last time, it didn’t work because his successor (a soda salesman) was the wrong choice. I doubt he’d make the same mistake twice.

  6. Kevin Kelleher

    @Nitin. Thank you for raising some very good points. I disagree on a couple. First, I did acknowledge that Jobs’ role at Pixar wasn’t as big as at Apple. Beyond that, none of the Pixar execs you mentioned had anywhere near the public profile Jobs did – it was always seen as his baby. Lasseter was much better known as the director of Pixar’s early hits, not as the company’s leader. He is an effective leader, but his exposure was overshadowed by Jobs. So why haven’t Jobs’ successors had much exposure? Maybe because they haven’t directed any Hollywood blockbusters.

    As for Apple’s cult status, I agree with Narendra that it isn’t a mainstream phenomenon.

  7. You are basically assuming that all minds created are equal, not so.
    Ask Mandelbrot what happens if he sees an equation describing a geometry, he sees the geometry immediately. Can you do that.
    I know people who can look at any equation and solve it, one step. No thinking required, can you do that?
    Mutations happen, but rally.
    What is the difference between a Leader and Manager? Why are leaders rare and Managers a dime a dozen?
    What happened before Steve returned to Apple, were all the people working there asleep?
    Maybe I’m grumpy, but you seem to have never encountered or worked with people described above, otherwise you would know there is a difference. For the better or worth, but I’m glad I have worked with some.
    BTW you can have the brightest smartest people working in the trenches if the Management team is just that you will still only end up with managed product line.

  8. Mike Cerm

    I have to say that I whole-heartedly disagree with the idea that Apple will be fine without Jobs. For starters, they tried it once, and it didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? Because the guy that they put in charge tried to run it like a business. Sure, there were plenty of smart people at Apple back then, but the share-holders wanted someone capable and business-oriented to steer the ship, and that will happen again when Steve steps down.

    So, what’s wrong with having someone sober and rational leading Apple? The illogical decisions are what have made Apple successful. In a world where Walmart and Best Buy swallow all competitors, who would open a chain of retail stores? What CEO would rather be in the low-margin hardware business, when they could be in the high-margin software business? That doesn’t make sense, but Jobs would never license The Mac OS.

  9. Beltway Greg

    My biggest concern is that someday they’ll run out of those cute feline names for their operating systems.
    How about Apple Alley Cat – that would be serious, or Apple Lynx or Ocelot either way I worried.

    Beltway Greg

  10. There’s one major flaw in the Pixar argument which you take as a jumping off time. Pixar has John Lasseter who is the creative force and the visionary and the spiritual leader of the storytelling forces at Pixar. At Pixar Steve is not the main guy – he is the business guy He is not the products guy or the technical guy. Latter is Ed Catmull.
    There is no other spiritual leader at Apple – there is no other products guy at apple – there are technical greats and business greats like Avi Tevanian and maybe Schiller respectively – but that is “just infrastructure”.

    So if, as you argue, Steve Jobs has a successor in the wings why haven’t we seen him/her yet – and how successful could he/she be if they haven’t had the kind of exposure and public vetting that we would expect.

    Sorry, but you haven’t made the case properly. While it is true nominally that Apple is a company and that Jobs is its business leader, it is also true that Apple is a cult and Steve Jobs is it’s spiritual leader.
    Apple as a company will no doubt survive – but will it still have cult status when someone else is running the show? Yes, but only if some one with the charisma and reality-distortion-field of Steve Jobs, takes his place.

    Your arguments while logical miss out on putting your finger on the soul of Apple which is what makes it not just a great company but THE company at the cutting edge of consumer computing.

    You might want to come at it from that angle and see if you come to the same conclusions.

  11. I think you might be underestimating Jobs’ value to Apple. Right now, we have to go on faith that Steve has a good succession plan in shape. Tim Cook is mildly comforting but that’s it. Schiller, Ive, and others wouldn’t cur it. Steve has had an incredible ability to exploit the intersection of technology, marketing and culture in a way that no one else I can think of has.

    Regarding Macworld, I have not seen anyone suggest that Apple should continue participating. The only issue, which was absent from your post, was the timing. The timing made health a plausible topic. The only other reasons would be a major product delay or wild dissatisfaction with IDG.

  12. Any links to the stock drops after Steve dropped out? Nicely written. Loved the reference to Gandalf and Morrrdor! Apple is loved because Apple is great, not because of Jobs.

    I could fry an egg on this Macbook Pro, but wouldn’t have any other machine, and wouldn’t get the level of service from any other company. Even Dell. I know when I ring my local Apple Store, they will get this issue resolved. We can rely on our Machines to run our amazing Adobe Suite, without crashing, constantly. And this is a notebook, not a desktop.

    Steve did not design or manufacture the machines, but led the company to do so to the highest standards. He has set a benchmark, for others to exceed. Apple always raise the benchmark, and hopefully always will.

  13. Besides, somebody has to go off to the mountain for a while and think different about how to do insanely great things with the new, post-apocalyptic global economy. Go Steve, go.