With the news that Steve Jobs is taking another medical leave from Apple — his third — it’s legitimate to ask the question of just how essential he is to Apple’s success. This is going to be a quick post, because I think the truth of the matter is that there are probably only 20 people who can answer that question…and they’re so secretive and such a part of the Jobsian communications strategy that we’re not likely to know the answer to that question for another year or more.
By all accounts, COO Tim Cook is a buttoned-down manager. Apple has been AMR Research’s (now Gartner’s) #1 in its Supply Chain Top 25 for three years in a row. Thus, I think it’s safe to say that Apple’s ability to execute its plan is in safe hands. Cook has probably been running large amounts of the operational show for years anyhow. How much it has helped him to have Jobs’s notoriously strong hammer can be asked, but ultimately this is not where Apple’s potential issues lie.
More to be questioned is how much of the marketing power of Apple is attributable to the “Jobsian reality field” and how much of the product vision is directly attributable to Jobs. Jobs has indicated that he’s going to remain engaged as CEO and assuming there’s some veracity to that assertion, it’s reasonable to assume that his exquisite sense of product development will continue to guide the company. With the Verizon announcement, the iPhone momentum continues even while Android continues to make inroads in the smartphone marketplace. Apple’s business plan never was to be the volume leader so this marketplace condition was to be expected. The same will probably happen in the tablet marketplace; Apple is quite happy to be the pioneer and then to reap early-mover profits while moving gracefully into the premium price place of the market. But given that, the question becomes “what’s next?” Apple has introduced two category-creating, or at least redefining, products in a row. They probably need another home run in the next two years to sustain their momentum and lofty market perceptions. Without Jobs at the plate, you’d have to question Apple’s ability, or at least likelihood, of hitting another home run.
This concern extends to Apple’s marketing as well. Again, they do a remarkable job, second to none certainly in the technology space , and even the broader consumer space. Here’s where it gets hard to call. Jobs doesn’t have to be omnipresent to sustain the Jobsian magic. In fact, lesser Jobs could actually mean more impact when he’s around. On the other hand, if he becomes perceived as merely a figurehead disassociated from the company he used to rule with an iron fist, his magic could be compromised.
Apple more than most companies is a cult of personality and the extended absence of its leader is a challenge for the company. That said, I don’t think it’s an insurmountable challenge. Microsoft was able to transition from a “cult of Bill Gates” to something more nuanced. But that was much easier because the cult of Bill was vastly weaker than the cult of Steve and the truth of a Bill-ruled company was less than the truth of a Steve-ruled company. I think we’re nearing the time when for myriad reasons Apple is going to need to let Jobs sprinkle some pixie dust on someone else, a visionary who can sustain the momentum and help transition the cult of Steve back once again to the cult of Apple. This mingling of Jobs and Apple is a relatively recent phenomenon. While a search of Time Magazine’s web site and Google couldn’t help me locate the quote, I have vivid recollections of a late 80’s/early 90’s quote there which said “second perhaps only to Harley Davidson is an Apple user’s love of their computer and the company who makes it.” The Jobs worship started with his return to the company who ousted him and with each successive product success, it grew only larger. It’s imperative now for Apple to share the spotlight, to bring a new person to the forefront as well as transition that passion back to the company so that it transcend’s Jobs, whatever his health.
So, back to the question that started my musings. I think Steve Jobs is as important to Apple’s success as any one individual has ever been to any technology company. Any extended absence by him could prove to be damaging to Apple’s future products and prospects. It sounds like there’s time for Apple and Jobs to transition that passion back more heavily to the company so that it can thrive in the inevitable absence of Jobs, whether it be this health-related matter, his waning interest or any other thing in life that could lead to his moving on/out.
He’ll be a tough act to follow, no doubt…but not impossible. Back in the late 80’s, I actually had Steve Jobs as the luncheon speaker at a Gartner PC conference I was running. This was right after he had introduced the NeXT computer, an amazing piece of software engineering that stood to transform the way we created and used software. He had demonstrated it weeks earlier at Gartner’s offices in Stamford, after which none other than Gideon Gartner came to me and said “do you think we should standardize our company on these?” The demonstration was that compelling. I, being a noted curmudgeon, said “give me a night to think on it,” after which I came up with any number of good reasons why it wasn’t the right thing to do. At the conference, Steve did his thing, and it was amazing. You could hear jaws dropping in the audience. I don’t know how many of you have ever given a meal speech but let me tell you, it’s the hardest thing in the world. Within three minutes, all you hear is silverware clanking and the din of conversation at the tables gets louder and louder. Not this time. Jobs had their rapt attention. You could have heard a pin drop. At the end, thunderous applause. Well, I was the next speaker. Now what do I do? How do you follow God and the 10 Commandments? All I was talking about was operating system futures. So I asked the audience, “how many of you want one of those things right now?” Every hand in the room went up. Then I said “how many of you are ready to standardize your company on those things tomorrow?” Every hand went down. (Well, I’m pretty sure Gideon wasn’t in the audience.) I then said “so now let’s focus on what our real options might be.”
So you can follow Steve Jobs. I’m just glad that I don’t have to do it again.