Why the tech industry needs to let Steve Jobs rest in peace


Friday marks one year since the passing of Apple(s AAPL) founder and cult hero Steve Jobs. But despite the valiant efforts of CEO Tim Cook to keep Apple’s focus on the future, it’s almost like Jobs never left: he’s been invoked an astonishing number of times over the past year to make a point or to shut down a debate about the company he founded — and about the job his successor is doing.

Here’s an idea about how to honor Jobs best: can we stop pretending we know what he would have done? That he would, say, fire Tim Cook, or that he would’ve had some brilliant other way of apologizing for a subpar Maps app, that he’d have a fit over Siri, or would have been infuriated by a random logo design? The insinuation is that Cook’s only correct course over the last 14 months as CEO of Apple is to properly channel Jobs.

A lot has changed at Apple since Jobs lost his battle with cancer on Oct. 5, 2011. But then again, plenty hasn’t: Apple is still the most valuable public company in the world. People still clamor to buy iPhones and iPads the first day they’re available. And people still talk more about Steve Jobs than the man who was at the helm during a 78 percent jump in Apple’s market value over that time span.

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Thinking different

Apple’s culture is one of those things that has changed. And that’s led by Cook, who has been able to take on arguably the hardest role in tech history as the man who succeeded Jobs and pretty convincingly make the position his own. He’s done well, too. He’s humanized Apple, and has acknowledged and embraced the company’s responsibilities as a global leader. He doesn’t appear to buy into the old “scrappy underdog” mentality at Apple that no longer applies when you’re the most influential electronics company in the business.

So when I look at Cook, I see a guy who’s keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses. I don’t see a guy who’s scrambling to imitate Jobs or — thankfully — a guy who’s constantly consulting Jobs’ memory. And that’s a good thing.

Other than a few basics — such as the value of design over pure engineering — Jobs’ ideas aren’t magically timeless. They were a product of the circumstances under which he and the world operated. Jobs may have thought something was a terrific idea in 2011, but it doesn’t mean it’ll work in a business as rapidly changing as tech a few years or even months later. Conversely, something that seemed idiotic to Jobs in 2010 could be exactly what consumers need in 2015: remember, Jobs was initially against the idea of developers building native applications on the iPhone. That turned out to be a pretty good idea.

Jobs told Cook to do what was “right.” By all accounts, he’s doing that. Cook has behaved the way the biography of a reserved, numbers-oriented, supply-chain genius suggests he would act: He’s looked for ways to crank up Apple’s efficiency, boosted the stock and filled the coffers of investors. Cook takes the role of the emcee at Apple events, rather than the star of the show like his predecessor. His leadership style includes a lot less belittling and yelling and a lot more listening and making time for people.

And in a very short time, Cook has done plenty of things that weren’t priorities for Jobs, like a new charitable matching program, visiting Foxconn’s factory floor, and hobnobbing with D.C. politicians, for example. Neither is he simply being contrary: he’s kept up Apple’s ongoing, distracting patent suits, despite his stated distaste for litigation.

“What Would Steve Do?” A question impossible to answer

Cook knows this best of anyone, having worked with the man for almost 15 years: There’s no surefire way to predict a side Jobs would have taken in an argument or a choice he absolutely would have made.

Take the iPad mini, which appears poised for release in the next month or so. Jobs, publicly at least, inveighed against the pointlessness of small, 7-inch tablets in late 2010. But we know now that Jobs “was receptive” to the idea of a smaller iPad near the end of his life.

Really, the list could go on about things Jobs flip-flopped on: video iPods, e-books, tablets, cell phones, iPods with cameras. Revealed in a Businessweek profile on Wednesday, Jobs was apparently of the mind to remove Google search from the iPhone because he was so angry with the company’s Android(s GOOG) strategy that he felt too closely mirrored iOS and the iPhone. But, he didn’t remove it: He changed his thinking when he reasonably realized that customers would hate it.

Cook, I think, is doing the same thing as Jobs in that way. He’s consulting his own hard-earned business sense, his experience running Apple behind the scenes for many years, the culture established at Apple, and naturally, reason and logic. As much as he probably wishes Jobs were around to consult on these matters, he realizes that would be unproductive. And that’s no way to keep Apple moving forward. “I love museums,” he told Walt Mossberg earlier this year, discussing Apple post-Jobs. “But I’m not going to live in one.”

If Cook is determined not to live that way, then why are we in the tech industry? Jobs is a person we’ll never forget, but he’s no longer with us. It’s time for the rest of us to move on.

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