It’s been less than two weeks since the death of Steve Jobs, and some pundits are already asking what will happen to his company without his iron fist on the helm. A quick web search shows that dozens of publications, from Forbes to the Huffington Post, have published articles titled “Can Apple Survive without Steve Jobs?” or some variation thereof.

I think the company will, indeed, survive. Whether it will continue to be as wildly successful as it’s been under Jobs for the last several years, whether it will be able to hold on to its status as an object of cult-like reverence without its charismatic leader, whether it will devolve into “just another tech company,” turning out ho-hum products without Jobs to provide the vision and crack the whip — that’s anybody’s guess.

End of an era

Even most of us who aren’t fans of Apple or Jobs mourn what his death represents — the beginning of the end of an era, the first passing among the members of a very special club that includes Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and perhaps others such as Steve Ballmer, Larry Ellison, and Michael Dell.

I know I’ve left people out; this list isn’t meant to be comprehensive. You know who I’m talking about: the pioneers of the personal computing age. Many of them were born in the 1950s. Jobs and Gates were both born the same year I was, so the realization that they’ve begun to shuffle off this mortal coil hits home pretty personally.

At the same time that they’re reflecting on those aspects, though, Apple’s competitors likely can’t help seeing this as a potential opportunity. If the company falters without Jobs, what company will move in to take its place at the top of the technology heap? Does Microsoft want to be the next Apple?

Who wouldn’t — if that means a ranking of number one in market capitalization, along with the second-highest brand rating in the world (AAA, second only to Google’s AAA+) and includes being a darling of most of the media?

But if that means emulating Apple in other ways, I wish Microsoft wouldn’t try.

You can’t emulate innovation

Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t forget the other old saying: flattery will get you nowhere. It’s obvious that Apple has done something very right, to come from the brink of bankruptcy in 1997 (before being bailed out by Microsoft) to the position it occupies in today’s business world. Naturally other companies, including Microsoft, want to copy the formula.

The problem is that success is an art, not a science. The same strategy that works beautifully for one person or one company can result in dismal failure for another. Just ask any chess player who has lost a game playing the same gambit used by a grandmaster to sail to victory.

Frankly, I don’t think Microsoft can get away with the attitude or actions that Apple has. Think about Apple’s anti-Vista ad campaign. If Microsoft had come back with the same sort of commercials, denigrating OS X in the same way, few people would have thought it was funny. They would have been accused of negative advertising and mudslinging. Likewise, if Microsoft raided someone’s home to look for one of their prototypes that a careless employee lost, the company would be (justifiably) castigated by its customers.

It is characteristic of any group that follows a charismatic leader to discount or not even be able to see his (or his company’s) flaws. Steve Jobs was extremely talented in the arts of presentation and persuasion.

I once heard it said of best-selling author Stephen King that he could “regurgitate the contents of the New York City telephone directory onto paper and make it compelling enough to make the New York Times list.”

The other Steve had a similar capability when it came to selling Apple’s products, services, and ideas. (I’m not saying Apple didn’t have some compelling products; I’m just saying that once you really dig in to the feature set and functionalities, some of them aren’t quite as “magical and revolutionary” as Jobs made them seem.)

Now that Steve Jobs is gone, even Apple might not be able to get away with what it routinely has in the past. Microsoft, lacking a cult figure to begin with, doesn’t have a chance of pulling it off. So don’t even think about getting all arrogant and elitist on us, please.

Don’t copy the wrong things

Maybe I wouldn’t worry about that happening if I hadn’t lately been watching Microsoft copy so many of the little things that Apple has done — and instead of taking the basic ideas and improving on them, doing them the same (infuriating) way Apple did them.

The App Store is a case in point. A “place” where users can easily find and download applications is a great idea. The way Apple implemented it isn’t. The lock-down that requires you to buy from them and nowhere else is both a control-freak maneuver and an insult to the intelligence of customers (“you’re too stupid to be trusted to install apps that aren’t spoon-fed to you by us”). The 30% of profits that developers have to pay to sell their apps through the App Store is akin to a confiscatory tax.

Unfortunately, according to most rumors Microsoft plans to do the same (at least for Metro style apps, and it’s highly likely that the plan is to eventually phase out the “classic” kind). This is just one of the “little” ways in which Microsoft has been copying all the wrong things (in my opinion) from Apple lately.

Another way in which Microsoft seems to be (although half-heartedly, thank goodness) trying to emulate Apple is in the latter’s well-known penchant for secrecy surrounding its upcoming products, events, and plans. We’ve seen that with the refusal to provide a road map for the TMG and UAG products, leading customers and consultants who support those products to worry and wonder what their futures might be.

We’ve seen it with the lack of agenda details or speaker information for the BUILD conference last month, leaving some developers mystified as to whether it would be worth the $1,599 entry fee. In the latter case, this didn’t seem to hurt sales; the conference sold out.

However, I don’t think the new trend toward secrecy is doing the company’s reputation any good. As Mary Jo Foley pointed out in a recent blog post, there now appears to be a policy of not commenting or clarifying information (or misinformation) that’s being disseminated about Windows 8 — and that’s causing a lot of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

The aura of secrecy is another of those things that Apple was able to get away with because Jobs was a master magician who could build suspense. For most entities, though, it just makes people mad.

Learn from the good, let go of the bad

Is Microsoft’s customer base and relationship with the media so different from Apple’s that none of the latter’s strategies and tactics can be adapted effectively? I wouldn’t say that. I think there are definitely lessons that Microsoft could learn from Steve Jobs and Apple. In fact, I think some of the most important things are covered in Guy Kawasaki’s article, “What I Learned from Steve Jobs,” that was published on CNET a few days after Jobs’ death.

In particular, I find item numbers 1 and 2 interesting (“Experts are clueless” and “Customers cannot tell you what they need.”). I think Microsoft spends a lot of time listening to the “experts” (Gartner, Forrester, et al.).

It’s certainly tempting to put a lot of stock into what the research companies say when they’re telling you what you want to hear, such as Gartner’s prediction in April of this year that Windows Phone will outsell the iPhone by 2015). But it’s important to remember that such predictions fluctuate wildly.

In October 2010, it was reported that Gartner was saying Microsoft’s share of the mobile market would decline to 3.9% by 2014. Sure, Gartner said the change was based on Microsoft’s partnership with Nokia, but that just underlines the fact that there will always be “new developments” that can render an expert’s opinion, at any given point in time, completely wrong.

And while Gartner claims that their “hit rate with predictions remains very high,” I’ve not been able to find any hard statistics showing what that percentage is. (Note that I’m using Gartner only as an example here; the same is true of other similar firms. No one can predict the future accurately; just ask anybody who’s ever lost a bundle in the stock market or at the horse races.)

I’ve often given Microsoft kudos for listening to their customers, but Kawasaki’s second point just might be the differentiating factor that explains why Apple has surged ahead of Microsoft, both in market cap and in public opinion. I think it’s true that today’s consumers don’t know what they need (or want) until you show it to them. What they think they want is based on mostly minor changes to what they already have. Apple made a big splash by giving them something (the iPhone) that they had never even considered.

Taking a chance

In the past, Microsoft has mostly played it safe. Windows Mobile was a tiny version of the Windows desktop. Windows 7, while dramatically more functional and prettier, is still very similar in basic concept and usage to Windows 95.

Microsoft — especially Microsoft Research — does come up with innovative, outside-the-box ideas. The Courier tablet was one, and when the company killed it (or appeared to), that seemed to confirm the growing public opinion that the company had gotten old and stodgy and was becoming not the next Apple, but the next IBM.

With the design of Windows Phone 7 and now Windows 8, though, we’re seeing a change in that “safety first” philosophy. We’re seeing something that’s really different. So far, Microsoft has gotten both praise and damnation for that. The question is whether the public at large will embrace that change or reject it.

The same kids who swoon over the latest tight, low-rider, hip-hugger jeans and midriff-baring tank top when it’s worn by a pop star will absolutely hate it when it’s worn by their own moms. Has Windows become so much a part of the family that customers won’t be able to accept it in a radical new outfit? I think they can make it work — if they do it right. And to me, that means carving out their own new road. If they just try to follow in Apple’s tracks, they may find themselves stuck in those ruts.

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