As Steve Jobs permanently steps down as CEO, Apple is on top of the world. It has redefined the smartphone and the tablet in an era when those two devices are destined to dominate the next stage of computing. It has become the most valuable and most profitable technology company in world and one of the planet's most powerful and recognizable brands. For a brief time when the stock market was going through its recent gyrations, Apple even passed Exxon Mobile to become the most valuable company in the world.
But, for those of us who have been around the tech industry for the past three decades, the most eye-popping thing Apple has accomplished in the past 14 years since Jobs returned to Apple was to turn the tables on its old rival Microsoft. Apple used to argue that it made higher quality products and out-innovated Microsoft, even if Microsoft made a lot more money by selling tasteless products to the masses, according to Jobs. In 2011, Apple now makes even more money than Microsoft (which still makes a lot in its own right).
But, Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO will inevitably put Apple's future at risk. You're going to read a lot of articles in the coming days where people are going to tell you all of the reasons that Apple is going to be fine and that the legacy of Steve Jobs will be enough to sustain the company for decades, and that Apple will be like Disney after Walt Disney's departure. Here's the bottom line — there's simply no scenario in which Apple can be better without Steve Jobs as CEO than they were with him there.
Sure, Jobs will still be around as Chairman, but that's a lot different than being in the trenches with engineers and designers every day. Few tech CEOs have ever been as hands-on as Jobs, and without him in the mix there's going to be a gaping hole in Apple's company culture and collective psyche.
Here are five big questions that Apple will have to face without Jobs involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. None of them have good answers, and that's why Apple will be hard-pressed to continue its unbroken run of successes as Jobs exits the front of the stage.
5. Who will ignore what the public wants?
A few years ago, Jobs said, "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give it to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new." That was his approach to product development throughout his career. He never tried to keep up with what the masses wanted, but tried to give them something new to fall in love with. Very few people in history have been as good as Jobs at judging what large numbers of people will want before they know they want it. Even fewer have ever had the guts to place big bets on those things. It's unlikely Apple will ever find another leader who can do that like Jobs, and that more than anything else has been the key to Apple's recent success.
4. Who will shame people into greatness?
The Steve Jobs management style is not normal in corporate America. He was notoriously abrasive, confrontational, and borderline-inappropriate. He got in people's faces. He called them names. He demeaned their humanity. And yet, plenty of Apple employees will say that he pushed them to create the greatest work of their careers. As a people manager, he was the Bobby Knight of tech. From the outside, a lot of people were appalled by the stories of Jobs' behavior toward his employees, but insiders will tell you that he could also be extremely generous, enthusiastic, and charming. And, when he praised an employee, it was like they just hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. Jobs could get away with this behavior — which gets most CEOs despised or fired — because he was Steve Jobs. Apple probably won't ever have another leader with this decidedly old school management approach — much more in the Vince Lombardi tradition than the modern Ken Blanchard mode. But, the main reason Apple's products are so polished is a result of Jobs' ferocious perfectionism.
3. Who will take the big risks?
It's easy to forget that when Apple first announced the iPhone, there were a lot of people in the technology industry who scoffed or snickered. CIOs called it a "toy." Research in Motion openly mocked the iPhone for a couple years and completely dismissed it as a competitor to the BlackBerry (we see how well that worked out for them). Most of the telecom carriers even ignored the iPhone for years before they weren't willing to deal with Apple's demands. The point is that Apple had a lot to overcome to create a successful mobile phone. It took years. It took a lot of money. It took a lot of relationship-building. And, there was never any guarantee of success. In fact, in 2007 when Apple first launched the iPhone, it was probably more likely that the carriers would find a way to lock out the iPhone or cripple it. The whole thing could have turned into a major distraction and a money pit. Instead, because the public loved the device, it pushed the entire smartphone industry in a different direction. It was a huge risk, but when it was successful, it came with a huge reward. Jobs took a similar risk with the iPad three years later, and got a similar result. Will new CEO Tim Cook be willing to take those kinds of risks? Or, more importantly, will he be smart enough to take the right kinds of huge risks? It's hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Jobs has done over the past decade — even Jobs himself would have had a hard time emulating his success over the next decade.
2. Who will say "No"?
Jobs once said, "I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things [we] have done. Innovation is saying 'no' to a 1,000 things." I recently wrote an entire piece about this topic: White iPhone debacle shows why Apple is winning. That article is about the fact that Apple promised a white version of the iPhone 4, but had to delay it multiple times (after several more "coming soon" promises). The product wasn't right and Apple refused to release a White iPhone 4 to the public until it was right. Most companies would have just released it earlier. Trust me. I see a ton of tech products come across my desk every month that still need to be finished and should have never been released. This is another example of where Jobs' relentless perfectionism has powered Apple's string of successes. Saying "no" is hard. It disappoints people. It can make your company look bad in the short term. It can put a lot of heat on you. Most companies say "yes" way too often. Apple will have to institutionalize and internalize the kind of discipline that Jobs repeatedly demonstrated. That's a tall order.
1. Who will conjure the "magic"?
Lots of leaders use hyperbole to promote their products, but only Steve Jobs can actually get a lot of people to believe it. I've been puzzling over this for years. Why do so many of the same people who turn cynical when most CEOs go into their sales pitches perk up when Jobs unleashes his bold claims about Apple products? Is it because Jobs has led so many successful projects in the past? Is it because he's more persuasive? Is it because he has a great team that has repeatedly delivered quality products? It's probably a little bit of all those things, but more than anything else, it has to do with Jobs' charisma and communication style (which aren't easily emulated). Jobs is generally pretty low-key and subtle, but then all of the sudden he'll fire off a big hyperbole or an enthusiastic flare. The contrast of the two styles seems to have the effect of making people say to themselves, "Whoa, if he thinks it's big and is getting excited about it, then it must be important." That's why people fall for it when Jobs dubs a tablet computer as a "magical and revolutionary" thing. It's not just Job's discipline and knack for taking the right risks that has made Apple successful, it's his own ability to promote Apple's products and get millions of people excited about them. That's worth more than millions of dollars of marketing, and it's the one thing that is almost completely irreplaceable.
- Steve Jobs resigns as Apple CEO, Tim Cook takes the reins
- The Steve Jobs era is over: Reaction and a poll
- ZDNet: When does Apple's Tim Cook era really begin?
- ZDNet: With Jobs gone as CEO, Apple's management bench enters the spotlight
- ZDNet: Woz on Jobs resignation (video)
- Steve Jobs at Apple: A retrospective (photos)
- Apple's Steve Jobs: In his own words (video)
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.