Year One A.J. (After Steve Jobs)

To the vast majority of the world, we are living in the year 2012. To those of us who spend much of our time within the Apple universe, it may be more appropriately labeled as year 1 A.J. (after Jobs). This is the first year, since Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, that we begin to see how Apple will fare without him at the helm.

How does Apple follow what is probably the most successful and ground-breaking 15 years in the history of corporations? Does smooth sailing lie ahead, with business proceeding much the same as if Steve were still around? Or will there be changes that indicate troubled waters lie in wait? Might there even be shifts that suggest some change is for the better? In my search for these answers, here is where I will be focusing my sights:

What would Steve do? What will Apple do now?

We won’t be entirely living in a post-Jobs world for another year or two. The scuttlebutt is that, prior to his death, Mr. Jobs laid out a blueprint for Apple to follow, one that should carry it through the next several years of product development. As he explained in his biography, he did not want his greatest legacy to be the list of Apple products created during his tenure. Rather, he wanted it to be an Apple company that continued to thrive long after he was gone — following the principles he put in place. His blueprint is only a means to kickstart such a legacy.

Even in the short run, no blueprint can anticipate every event that may unfold. Inevitably, unpredicted events happen, events that will require a response that goes beyond the guidance of any blueprint. What will Apple do at such junctures?

At least for 2012, I expect Apple’s mantra will be “What would Steve do?” The reflex response will be to rock the boat as little as possible, to imagine what Mr. Jobs might do in any given situation and do that. Of course, given his mercurial nature, it might not always be possible to know what Steve Jobs would do. But the effort will be made. 

Trickier to assess will be the question of implementation. Mr. Jobs was the unquestioned final arbiter of decisions at Apple. There might be disagreement among Apple’s top brass as to what course Apple should follow. There might even be vigorous debate on a topic. But unless and until Mr. Jobs agreed to a course of action, it would not happen. When he did decide, that was the final word, even if everyone else disagreed. (I expect I’m exaggerating a bit here, but not by much.)

Being the lone final authority can work well if you make the right decisions most of the time. And Steve Jobs managed to pull this off quite well. Will Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, attempt to similarly be a lone final arbiter? If so, will he be able to carry it off? Or will he try to rule more by consensus building? And might this be a better approach in the end?

Steve Jobs noted that the ultimate downfall of many successful companies begins when they focus more on short-term profit than on long-term innovation. For a publicly traded company, this is a pitfall that is hard to avoid. Steve Jobs managed to avoid the pitfall. Will Tim Cook be able to do as well? Or will he succumb to potential pressures from stockholders to push the company in directions that Steve would never go?

There’s also the question of clout. Steve Jobs, whether through his “reality distortion field,” seductive cajoling, or threats of retaliation, could get people to agree to terms that they would otherwise never accept. The commonly accepted history is that his personal force is what got the music industry to accept Apple’s terms for the iTunes Store, what got AT&T to accept Apple’s terms for the iPhone, and on and on. Apple remains a huge and powerful company, even without Mr. Jobs as CEO. Still, will Tim Cook be able to exert similar clout?

Some pundits have expressed concern that, without Steve Jobs, Apple will be hard pressed to come up with the next market-shattering must-have game-changing iPhone-like product. Personally, I don’t share this concern. As long as Apple can keep and attract the level of talented people it currently employs, I am confident that its prior level of innovation can be sustained. But it remains a legitimate question to ponder.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. But, as events unfold over the next several months, I will be looking for clues.

Will we see the release of an Apple-branded television (as hinted by Steve Jobs in his biography)? Will Apple be able to force through the deals with media content providers that will be necessary for such a product to be a success? How will Apple handle the inevitable “special event” announcing the television? What will the ads for the product look like? In the end, will the ultimate television product be Apple’s next big hit or a disappointing dud? 

Will we see two new iPads released this year? Is a 7-inch iPad in the works? What is the timing of the release of these products? Will the year end with Apple cementing its dominance of the tablet market? Or will it be on the decline?

For starters, today’s iBooks Author, iBooks 2 and iTunes U software, announced at an Apple Media Event, struck me as a good start for following in Steve Jobs’s footsteps.

Steve Jobs

What would Steve Jobs not do? Will Apple loosen up? 

This is the yang to the previous section’s yin. Despite Steve Jobs’s unparalleled success, he had qualities that Apple would be better off not attempting to emulate going forward.

Steve Jobs had an obsessive concern with even the smallest details of a product’s design. Equally, he was ferocious in his desire to control the “entire widget” of a product — from top to bottom, from its software to its hardware to how it was marketed and sold. There is no doubt that, up to a point, this contributed to the success of many Apple’s products.

More than occasionally, however, Mr. Jobs went beyond that point. Over the years, Steve Jobs’s control issues led to unnecessary launch delays, increased development costs, annoyed customers, and simply wrong-headed decisions. Fortunately, he managed to course correct some of his worst missteps before it was too late, but not always before damage was done. Lurking behind many of his most questionable decisions was his desire to limit end-user (and even developer) access to Apple’s products. Once again, you only need read Steve Jobs’s biography to discover numerous such examples.

One such example was Steve Jobs’s initial opposition to allowing third-party apps on the iPhone. In hindsight, given the overwhelming success of the App Store, it seems obvious what a spectacular, even essential, idea this was. Most people at Apple were strongly in favor of it from the start. Steve Jobs was not. It wasn’t until months after the launch of the iPhone that he was persuaded to go in this direction. Even then, it was only because he “figured out…[the idea of an App Store that would give…] us the benefits of openness while retaining end-to-end control.” [pp. 501-502 of the Steve Jobs biography]

Another, quirkier example, concerns one of the most trivial parts of Apple products: the screws that hold them together. Steve Jobs did not want end-users (or third party service providers) to be able to open up the iPhone, even to change the battery. “When Apple discovered in 2011 that third-party repair shops were opening up the iPhone, it replaced the tiny screws with a tamper-resistant Pentalobe screw that was impossible to open with [any] commercially available screwdriver.” [p 473 of the Steve Jobs biography] For an especially critical assessment of this screwy event, read the account on iFixit.

We can debate the merits vs. demerits of Steve Jobs’s approach in such matters. And I have done so in numerous prior columns. Personally, I find many of these decisions to be at least a bit over the edge. As such, I look forward to an Apple that no longer deems it necessary to go to these extremes. I don’t expect to see a major loosening of the reigns. [I certainly don’t expect to see any significant shift in the overall Apple culture of secrecy, as described in a recent Fortune article.] It probably wouldn’t be advised to do so anyway. But even a slight loosening could be dramatic and potentially positive.

Where might we see indications of any such shift in the near-term? For starters, I would look at the coming implementation of sandboxing restrictions for the Mac App Store and the more general plans for further iOS-ification of Mac OS X. Any back-pedaling here would be indicative of a change in emphasis.

Similarly, as the demise of MobileMe approaches, look to see if there is any change from Apple’s current decisions on what to maintain and what to drop. In particular, will iDisk be resurrected?

More generally, will Apple PR become a bit more forthcoming in dealing with the press? (I can only hope!) As new iOS products are released, might we see the slightest hint of change in Apple’s attitude towards jailbreaking (I know, I’m probably dreaming here).

As with a great roller coaster ride, no matter what soaring heights or plummeting descents lie ahead for Apple, it will be fun to be on board. Strap me in.