In the wake of Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO of Apple Inc., there has been the predictable tsunami of articles chronicling Mr. Jobs’s accomplishments. You can count me among those who marvel at all that Steve Jobs has done to reshape the world we live in. How different (and inferior) our technology would be today if Steve Jobs had not shepherded the development of the Macintosh, the iPod, the iTunes Store, the iPhone and the iPad.
If you think similar products by someone else’s hand would have reached our shelves anyway, think again. Go back and read Guy Kawasaki’s The Macintosh Way to see how, from the very start, Apple’s success was a direct result of the corporate culture Mr. Jobs created. Despite a few misgivings regarding his management style, if I had a choice, I’d prefer that Steve Jobs remain CEO of Apple indefinitely. Unfortunately, we were not given that choice.
At a personal level, Steve Jobs is responsible for changing the trajectory of my life. My first computer was an Apple II. I purchased a Macintosh in January of 1984, the week after it came out. At the time, I was convinced I had just seen the future of personal computing. My assessment has not changed. Thus began a relationship with Apple that has spanned decades. I began writing about Macintosh computers in the late 1980’s. Eventually, via several books and a website, it became a full-time career. I thank Steve Jobs for all of this.
When I look back in time through the lenses of my rose-colored glasses, I can almost convince myself that I was aware of Steve Jobs’s genius from the very beginning. With the glasses off, the harder truth becomes apparent: I did not always have the reverence for Steve Jobs that I have today. And I believe I am far from alone in this regard…
In 1985, when Steve Jobs was ousted as CEO of Apple, I was surprised, almost shocked. I was well aware of Mr. Jobs’s critical role in the development of the Mac. I wondered whether his departure would signal the loss of Macintosh-like products going forward. Still, I was not especially concerned or alarmed. I remained confident that Apple could and likely would succeed without Steve Jobs.
It didn’t turn out that way. A decade later, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy. Microsoft Windows had taken over the world. The current crop of Mac computers were beige and undistinguished. The Mac OS was in tatters. Still, I don’t recall longing for Steve Jobs to return to Apple. It was far from clear that his absence was the major factor leading to Apple’s decline or that his return would help. Indeed, a commonly held belief was that Steve Jobs’s bungling was what had allowed Microsoft to “steal” the Mac’s GUI from Apple in the first place. In the meantime, Mr. Jobs’s NeXT computer was hardly burning up the marketplace.
By 1996, Apple’s attempts to revamp the Mac OS had failed. Mac OS 8 Copland was all but dead. Apple began shopping for a replacement OS, quickly narrowing down the candidates to two possibilities: BeOS (from former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée) vs. Steve Job’s NeXT.
If you think the entire Mac community was shouting for Apple to choose NeXT, you’d be wrong. At best, there was a 50:50 split. The arguments centered around the merits of each OS. Although BeOS was a more modern OS with a more Mac-like interface, it was still in its early stages (there weren’t even printer drivers as I recall). NeXT was more mature, already running on its companion hardware. But its less attractive interface and underlying UNIX base made Mac diehards nervous.
For what it’s worth, I was one of those who was rooting for BeOS. But my main point here is that, as far as I can recall, the potential return of Steve Jobs to Apple was not a major consideration in the debate. Certainly, there was no groundswell suggesting that Steve Jobs’s return would save Apple. On the contrary, many viewed this prospect as another strike against going with NeXT.
Happily, in the end, Apple ignored my preference and chose NeXT. Soon thereafter, Steve Jobs resumed his role as CEO. Even at this point, the wisdom of this move was not immediately recognized. Over the next year, people continued to question the merits of putting Mr. Jobs back in charge. At the Boston Macworld Expo, when Steve Jobs announced a deal with Microsoft (with a 1984-like image of Bill Gates on a screen behind him), there were more gasps than applause. Mac users were, by and large, disappointed when Mr. Jobs killed off the Newton. There were predictions of doom when he withdrew the licensing for Mac clones. Yes, we can see the wisdom of all of these decisions now; but it wasn’t clear at the time.
[For an interesting at-the-time perspective, read my MacFixIt “Year in Review” articles for 1997 and 1998. You’ll see how my perceptions of the future of Apple and the role of Steve Jobs dramatically shifted over 12 months.]
It wasn’t until 1998 that the great turn-around began — with the release of the iMac. From its radical Jonathan Ive all-in-one design to the elimination of the floppy disk drive, it was beautiful and bold. Mac OS X was still several years away, but it was already becoming clear that Steve Jobs was sending Apple in a new direction. And, at least among those in the Mac community, we liked where he was going. As it turned out, the iMac was the first of a string of products whose success remains unrivaled in any industry.
From the vantage point of 2011, I am convinced that, if Steve Jobs had not returned to Apple, the company would not exist today. I would not be writing this article on a MacBook Air with an iPhone in my pocket. As the book title aptly puts it, Steve Jobs’s second tenure at Apple is the “Greatest Second Act in the History of Business.” Founding Apple and being the driving force behind the creation of the Macintosh are landmark achievements. No doubt. But it is Steve Jobs’s post-1997 accomplishments that turned a successful entrepreneur into a legend.
I would like to say we all knew this even back then. But we didn’t. Regardless, we know it today. Whatever happens from this day forward, Steve Jobs’s legacy is assured.
Where does Apple go from here? Can Apple continue to succeed without Steve Jobs at the helm? These questions have been asked, over and over again in the past week. The consensus answer appears to be that Apple can and will do quite well, at least in the short run. The long run is more of an uncertainty — and with justification.
I believe that Steve Jobs’s success at Apple is based on two key qualities: vision and implementation.
Mr. Jobs had the vision to anticipate what products consumers would want and how best to design these products. But he did not act alone in this regard. As he would be the first to admit, Steve Jobs had a great team behind him, with people such as (new CEO) Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive. This team remains at Apple, together with the culture Steve Jobs created that is now part of Apple’s “DNA.” That’s why I am confident that Apple’s pipeline will churn out successful products for years to come.
But Mr. Jobs also had an unrivaled power to implement his vision. It wasn’t always pretty to watch but, when Steve Jobs said he wanted something done, it happened — no matter what the risk, no matter what the cost, no matter how many others thought it might not be a good idea. He could be persuaded to change his mind. But if persuasion failed, Mr. Jobs would get his way. His power extended beyond Apple itself. According to behind-the-scenes accounts, Steve Jobs was able to get AT&T to agree to his terms for an iPhone, without top AT&T executives ever even seeing a prototype. This power enabled Mr. Jobs to accomplish goals that no other CEO would have been able to do. Combine this with the “vision thing” and it’s an unbeatable duo.
Will anyone else at Apple be able to wield this type of power? The short answer is “No.” I believe decisions at Apple will now require more of a consensus than was the case with Steve Jobs in charge. But this hardly means that Apple will not continue to be a successful company. It can be successful in a different way — a way that could turn out to be more positive than negative. A little less of Mr. Jobs’s “tight control” could have benefits.
Still, the long run remains a concern. You can view corporations metaphorically as digital clocks — ones that do not run with 100% accuracy. The degree of inaccuracy of a particular clock varies as a function of how well the company is being run. A well-run company, such as Apple, might lose a barely perceptible 30 seconds a year. Still, left alone, even this small loss grows over time — until the gap becomes large and noticeable. If and when this happens, even a well-run company finds itself in trouble. Part of the job of a CEO is to monitor and periodically reset the clock to prevent this from happening. Steve Jobs could manage the clock better than anyone. How well Tim Cook can handle the task remains to be seen. Given what I know of Mr. Cook, I am very optimistic. However, the clock metaphor implies that it could be years before we know for sure. Time will tell.