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Apple In A Post Jobsian World

I'm no Apple fanboy, but even I get a sense that we've somehow come to the end of an era with the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO at Apple. For many Steve Jobs was Apple. That's a statement you will probably have read many times, and will probably read many more times over the coming days. The question of course is whether that's true or not. Put another way, can Apple succeed without Jobs at the helm?

Even though the question of what would happen to Apple in a post-Jobs world has been raised many times it has never been answered, if for no other reason than no one really knows. What we can do, however, is look at what might lie in store for Apple and whether the company's success was down to Apple's magic, or Jobs'. A good place to start then might be with another company which saw an iconic founder depart.

That company is of course Microsoft in the wake of Bill Gates' departure. At the time Gates stood down Microsoft was arguably the leading tech company in the world and if not it certainly wasn't far from it. Gates left Microsoft in 2008 and since that time the company, whilst receiving generally positive reviews for its Windows 7 desktop platform, has struggled to make a dent in the mobile market, even with the release of Windows Phone 7. It has found it hard to challenge Google in search and Apple has stolen a march on it in being seen as the world's leading technology brand. In terms of hard numbers Microsoft hasn't seen the same share price or valuation increases as Apple has. In short, many look upon Microsoft as just another tech company these days; still a very large and important one to be sure, but without that iconic personality at the helm it has lost what some might call it's 'charisma'.

One thing that you will hear a lot of is that Apple has many talented people working for it. I'm sure that's true, but Apple, even for us non-fanboys, was always something of a special case. In a sense it was almost a vehicle for Steve Jobs to unleash his vision on the world. As much as new products excited Apple's fans the man himself was equally as appealing for them with speculation mounting before presentations as to not only what would be on display, but whether Jobs would be presenting it. That's an almost impossible role for someone else to take over.

In practical terms Apple will continue to function as it always has. The army of managers and administrators will continue to keep the lights on, the salaries paid and the stores stocked. That's a given. What is less certain though is where Apple's vision will now come from. None of the other Apple executives are as well known as Jobs and none of them command the same respect or, dare I say it, devotion that Jobs received. There is simply no one else in the picture who has that same charisma and who would make an obvious choice to front the company.

That may seem like a strange choice of words to use 'fronting a company', after all Apple is a technology company, not a rock band. However, as I said before, Apple has always been something of a special case. Apple doesn't just release a new smartphone or a new computer in the way Samsung or HP does, it also builds a culture around those products. More so than any other company on the planet right now Apple makes you buy into the idea of their products. Part of that is marketing of course, something which Apple, for all the criticism that is levelled at it, does brilliantly. The other part of the equation was Steve Jobs. He was inexorably bound to the products his company released and for many it was the case that if Jobs said something was hip then that was the last word.

In an interview with Russian station Kommersant FM 93.6 media manager Anton Nosik made what you might consider to be a controversial statement about Jobs: "Of all the things that we admire, Steve Jobs did not invent any". It's certainly a provocative statement on the face of it, but it does tie in with the idea of Jobs as a visionary rather than an engineer. Nosik's point was that Jobs' borrowed what he thought was good in the world, whether it was the design aesthetics of a kitchen utensil or whatever else, and adapted those aesthetics and qualities to Apple's products. Now compare that with a company like Google.

Google has had great success with many products e.g. GMail, Android, etc, but on the whole it is a pretty faceless company run by engineers. They can produce the goods, but sometimes the goods start off rather bland and unexciting and there is no charismatic personality to carry them forward. Jobs might not be an engineer, but does he need to be? He has proven time and again that he can sell just about anything to anyone and Apple have built much of their recent success on the back of that.

There is another side to this of course, which is that with such a forceful personality Apple was in some ways constricted. Steve Jobs' vision may have been what guided Apple and what many fans looked to, but by the same token it could also be argued that it held the company back in some areas. If Jobs doesn't like something then it doesn't happen at Apple. With Jobs no longer running the show perhaps Apple will become free to look at options that may not have been possible under Jobs.

Here lies danger though because when we talk about more freedom of choice and throwing off a burden we tend to think of those in positive terms. Yet what we have to remember is that even if Steve Jobs' vision for Apple could be restricting at times it is that narrow focus that Apple sometimes demonstrated that allowed it's products to thrive. Apple's refusal to support Flash on the iPhone, for example, doesn't seem to have done the company any harm, far from it, the iPhone is the single best selling smartphone in the world.

In the end we are left with the answer we have always had, we simply do not know how Apple will fare without Steve Jobs. What we can say is that it will loose some of its personality and much of its charisma. That doesn't mean that it can't continue to produce great products or set itself apart from other tech companies, but it does mean that it might be a lot less 'magical' for some.

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Paul Smith (paul.smith@mobile-review.com)

Published — 25 August 2011

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