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  • Can We Just Stop Talking About Steve Jobs?

    February 23rd, 2009

    Accompanying reports of the upcoming Apple shareholders meeting is the fact that Steve Jobs won’t attend. This is supposedly a big deal, considering all the concerns about his health and all.

    However, the tech pundits who have turned this development into a major story seem to be ignoring the critical fact of Jobs’ decision to take a medical leave from the company for six months. Logically speaking, that also means that he is not going to show up at public events. How could it be otherwise?

    Sure, it’s right to talk about Apple’s future, possible new product directions and how they’d manage the succession process should Jobs decide, for whatever reason, not to return. I can well understand that there are concerns — valid ones — as to how well Apple will do without Jobs at the helm.

    While lots have companies have CEOs moving in and out of the executive suite in a musical chairs fashion, a founder of the company is the person who shapes its direction, particularly if that person is a charismatic visionary.

    Look, if you will, how Apple fared when Steve Jobs left the company in the mid-1980s. Yes, Apple hung around for over a decade without him around, but they didn’t do so well did they? Sure, there were some great products along the way, and also far too many duds. By the time Jobs returned as part of the acquisition of NeXT, Apple was an absolute, hemorrhaging lots of red ink.

    They say that the company was never closer to folding, and I can well understand that those of you who — like me — stayed with the company for many years through thick and thin don’t want to see a repetition of the bad old days.

    But the Steve Jobs who took over as iCEO (and then as CEO “for life”) was not quite the same person who co-founded Apple along with Steve Wozniak in the mid-1970s. He had matured as a business person, and understood the need to hire executives with vision and talent to manage the day to day affairs.

    The people who are there today have been immersed in Steve Jobs’ vision, following his wishes for years. For example, COO Tim Cook, who is keeping the engine running in Jobs’ absence, is widely regarded as one of the best operating officers on the planet. He has tamed Apple’s runaway inventory issues, and runs a lean and mean ship.

    Sure Apple is late with products from time to time, usually by no more than a few weeks or so. But I rather suspect that’s largely the result of unexpected production issues, which are understandable, rather than some deep-seated management problem. Sometimes critical product defects don’t actually appear until the production ramp up begins. Besides, critical components may ship late, and Apple doesn’t have a whole lot of control over that.

    I suppose there are also concerns because Apple hasn’t done very much in terms of innovating through the economic downturn, at least so far. This year’s product revisions have been really routine, at least so far. The 17-inch MacBook Pro, for example, was just a natural development that accompanied last fall’s introduction of the unibody Macs. Giving it a special battery, while no doubt useful for on-location work, is not revolutionary by any means, even though it’s a clever idea.

    Certainly the upgrades to iLife and iWork were also part of the natural development process, even though I expect most of you who have tried these application suites will agree that the upgrades are well worth the money.

    But what about the iMac and the Mac mini? Certainly the latter was long in the tooth a year ago, and I expect it’s natural to think that the product may eventually be supplanted by something altogether different. Or it may get a simple refresh to accompany the iMac.

    Adding to that are concerns about Apple’s future direction with NVIDIA, now that the latter is embroiled in a legal dispute with Intel. It seems that NVIDIA thinks they have the right to build chipsets for the next-generation Core i7 processor family. Intel disagrees, and so the lawyers wrangle, and Apple remains in the middle.

    If Intel prevails or at least fails to sign a new licensing pact with NVIDIA, Apple may have to abruptly change the designs of some of its future products. While I expect Apple has different prototypes at hand to accommodate the outcome, that also means product delays.

    This isn’t to say the existing iMac, despite lower sales of Apple desktops, is a bad product. But time maybe passing it by, at least as far as those thinking about buying a new Mac are concerned.

    Whatever the issues, little of this has anything to do with whether or not Steve Jobs returns to Apple in June, continues his sabbatical or just quits. Indeed, I expect that, whatever his actual condition, he remains in touch with Apple’s executives about future products and marketing plans. Indeed, I expect Apple’s new gadget roadmap for the next few years has already been hatched and everything is moving naturally through the development process even now.

    It would be nice to have Jobs back. But if that’s not in the cards, so be it. Let’s move on.

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