Apple and Steve Jobs: Is There Another Emperor in the House

I’m hard pressed to come up with another situation like Apple’s.  Has there ever been a company where not only is the image of the company so closely associated with its CEO but also the company’s product strategy and even product details?  I can’t think of a remotely similar situation.

There might have been a time when you would have said “Bill Gates and Microsoft.”  Yet behind Bill was a cadre of senior executives (Ballmer, Raikes) who wielded significant product and strategy power.  It was convenient for Bill to be the face of the company — the friendly nerd — but when it was time for things to change, Microsoft was able to effect the change with minimal disruption.

Non-technology celebrity CEOs have included Southwest’s Herb Kelliher, GE’s Jack Welch and a long list, and in almost all instances, the company was able to transcend the personality of its leader, either sustaining his or her core values or seamlessly transitioning to a new stage in the company’s evolution.

So what of Apple?  Caveat:  I have long believed that many Apple products are a triumph of style over substance.  Yes, they’re beautiful products, well finished, and I perhaps consistently underrate how much that matters, even in technology.  However, Jobs has always had some huge blind spots that have influenced his product design often times for the negative.  For instance, why in the world would you design a phone/music player/web browsing/communicating device on power-sucking 3G networks without a replaceable battery?  Well, the added thickness to support a replaceable battery offended Steve’s aesthetic notions.

Perhaps only Jobs could pull this off.  He was truly a master showman without equal.  I had the interesting opportunity to speak immediately after him one time.  This was at the Gartner PC conference around 1990, when Jobs was at NeXT.  He was our lunchtime speaker and gave this amazing product demonstration.  Of course, large portions of it were smoke-and-mirrors but that didn’t really matter.  People had seen the future and wanted it now.  The only way I could get people in the room back paying attention to my session — which was about PC operating systems — was to ask two questions.  First, “how many of you want one of those?”  Virtually every hand in the room went up.  OK.  “How many of you are ready to standardize your company on those right now?”  Hands went (mostly) down and point made.  I hated to be the buzz kill but someone had to point out that the emperor had no clothing.

I’m sure Microsoft in particular but a lot of other players are hoping this is their opportunity.  Not that they’re wishing ill of Jobs, of course, but this is the opportunity to start the drumbeat “the (new) emperor ain’t the old one, and this one has no clothing.”  Can anyone continue the string of hits that Jobs has championed at Apple?  I’m not even sure Jobs himself could maintain this record.  Is COO Tim Cook the main to seize the mantle?  I don’t know Cook.  He’s clearly well regarded.  But to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen of all people, “I know Steve Jobs.  I’ve been up on stage with Steve Jobs and Tim, you’re no Steve Jobs.”

This is clearly a pivotal time in Apple’s history.  They’ve been able to sustain above-market pricing in large measure because of the “Jobs factor.”  If their products receive greater scrutiny and are unable to sustain those price-premiums post-Jobs, it’s a new world.  And this, to me, is the likely scenario.  Welcome, competition.  Microsoft makes some inroads.  A few consumer electronics players (Sony?) are newly reinvigorated.  And we consumers benefit from new competition, more choice and freedom from the “Steve knows better” overhang.

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