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Life Without Steve

After Apple CEO Steve Job’s latest revelations about his health and the announcement of his temporary absence from the company many people are wondering whether Apple can survive without him. There’s no reason to believe they will have to in the immediate future because I see no reason to believe anything other than the standard explanation that Jobs will be back after 6 months of medical leave.

The usual reason given for believing Apple needs Steve is that during the time he was away from the company in the late 80s and early 90s Apple really struggled and many people believed the company was doomed. There is a still a web site out there called the “Apple death knell counter” which lists the predictions of Apple’s demise from so-called expert commentators. The predicitons have dried up a bit but some genius predicted the failure of the iPhone as recently as 2007. Of course, they were all wrong, and in most cases it was obvious at the time, but even the most avid Apple fan must have been a bit concerned before the triumphant return of Steve!

Its true that during Jobs’ absence Apple seemed to have no direction and didn’t do well, either from a business of technology perspective. I think I know why this was and its important that they don’t repeat the error, even during the few months Jobs will be away, and more especially if he leaves the company for good for whatever reason.

So what was this mistake? It was assuming that Apple was just another company and should be run by professional managers just like any other company. The fact is Apple is not just another company. Other companies survive by copying and innovating in minor ways, producing products at cheaper prices than their competitors, or by relying on clever marketing. Apple does all these things to some extent but it also does more. Its the only mainstream company which is a genuine industry leader.

Sure, some other companies occasionally produce something which is mildly innovative but they don’t tend to be the first to produce something which really changes the whole market segment. Take the iPhone for example. It wasn’t the first smart phone but it was the first smart phone which was genuinely useful and it established that type of product as something everyone might want instead of just a few geeks who treat their phones more as toys than serious tools. I agree that the Blackberry partly did this before the iPhone but it really only caught on as an email device which is hardly innovative.

Apple did the same thing with the personal computer in the late 1970s. They weren’t the first to make one but they created the home computer as a new product which everyone might want. They revolutionised the computer again with the release of the Mac in 1984 by turning it into an applicance which was easy to use. The same happened with the iPod. Before that MP3 players were fun toys but the iPod made them a standard item that most people now have.

So what does all this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well it was his judgement which seems to have resulted in Apple creating the right product at the right time at the right price and with the feature set and styling that people really wanted. Apple needs to find someone with the same visionary skills if they want to replace Jobs. That won’t be easy, but at least if they know the type of person they need they won’t end up with a succession of drab marketers or professional managers like they did during the “dark days” of Steve’s absence in the 80s and 90s.

Its not just a simple matter of reading the public’s wants either. Apple tends to almost tell its customers what they want and don’t want which seems arrogant and possibly even disastrous, but they always seem to end up being right. It happened when they dropped the floppy drive, serial ports, and dial up modem. It happened with many features of the operating system which were intially controversial, such as the dock. I can’t remember the last time Apple really made a bad decision or a bad product (well possibly dropping Firewire was a bad idea but its too early to tell for sure) and I just hope that success can continue whether Steve is there or not.

  1. January 20, 2009 at 1:22 am

    crazy that Steve Jobs had to leave for a while, hopefully there’s somebody to hold up the fort while he’s gone

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