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Does Apple Need Steve?

Since Apple’s creation it has lurched from being fabulously successful to being an almost total failure to being even more outrageously successful than it was to start with. And the factor which (at least superficially) seemed to correspond with its level of success was the presence or absence of Steve Jobs as its CEO.

Today we heard that Steve Jobs is resigning as CEO although he plans on staying on as chairman of the board and as an Apple employee. Does this mean that Apple will begin a slide into disaster like it did last time Steve was away? Obviously Apple fans like myself will hope not, but the future – especially in the area of technology – is notoriously hard to predict.

Potentially it could even be a good thing for Apple. Steve Jobs is undoubtedly a brilliant visionary but many people think he sometimes takes things too far, and his pursuit of user experience perfection and design excellence can lead to outcomes which are counter-productive.

Of course it could easily be someone else who has been responsible for these problems. But many of them have the look of Steve’s brand of “social engineering” about them. Here’s a few examples of the type of thing I mean: removing floppy drives on the iMac, dropping support for Classic on Mac OS X, and most recently removing the PowerPC emulation environment “Rosetta” from Mac OS X Lion.

There have been many more as well but the overall theme here is that Apple are about what they don’t give you as much as what they do. Almost universally these decisions do ultimately tend to be good (who wants floppy disks?) but they do create a lot of problems in the short term.

There are also a few Apple products where design has got in the way of function. Again these seem to bear the sign of a Steve intervention. The dreaded “hockey puck” mouse would probably be the most notorious!

So the challenge for Apple will be to maintain their outstanding design and brilliant usability while avoiding making the transition to new products too painful.

Apple can’t afford to become “just another computer company”. Those types of companies are not doing well. Look at how IBM failed after launching the PC in 1981. Look at the dismal failure of HP to do anything useful with either its tablets or its PCs. And look at the continuous slide from dominance of Microsoft in recent years.

In fact Apple should look carefully at Microsoft. Whatever criticism you might have of Bill Gates he was an intelligent and insightful technology leader. And that’s a lot more than you can say about the clown in charge of Microsoft now! So that company seems to have done badly since it lost its visionary leader and the same could happen to Apple.

When the Apple board threw out Jobs in the mid 1980s they had decided that it was time for Apple to “grow up” and they tried to run the company just like all the others. That clearly didn’t work because if you become just one of the others you can only really compete on price and that is a sure path to failure.

So Apple must keep its distinctive culture and it must continue to take risks. It should design new products based on what people will want (even if they don’t know it yet), not on what they are asking for and definitely not on what they have had in the past. But they should be a little bit less extreme about it and try to pay a little bit more attention to backward compatibility.

How hard can it be? Judging from the total failure of almost every company except Apple obviously it is very hard! Can Apple do it without Steve as CEO? I certainly hope so or the future of technology looks rather dreary.

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