I’m sure many of you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a growing perception that Steve Jobs will never return to Apple, at least to his full-time job. The best compromise appears to be that he’ll select someone to be permanent CEO, perhaps acting CEO Tim Cook, and that Jobs will assume some sort of supreme advisory role to set the company’s product direction and marketing strategy.
That might sound somewhat like the role that Bill Gates played at Microsoft in the years before he retired from his full-time position to become the full-time philanthropist. Of course, when it comes to Gates, it’s questionable just how innovative he’s ever been. He used innovation more as market-speak rather than as a genuine goal.
As far as Wall Street is concerned, it appears they may have already digested the potential impact to Apple if Jobs’ sabbatical proves to be permanent rather than temporary. What is evident is that the company’s ongoing performance as a maker of cutting-edge gadgets has evidently not changed. It’s also evident to them that other people at the company are perfectly capable of demonstrating new products and getting plenty of media coverage.
In retrospect, maybe they don’t possess the legendary Steve Jobs “reality distortion field,” but it’s also quite possible that maybe he didn’t totally deserve that label either. Having a skilled marketing department actually designing the promotional strategy, the slide presentations, and perhaps even writing the scripts used in those legendary keynote addresses may have been mostly responsible for their impact. This isn’t to say that Jobs isn’t a good performer, but it’s foolish to think he did it all alone.
Indeed, if the rollout of the iPhone 3.0 SDK was an example, the forthcoming update contains plenty of goodies to talk about without talking about Jobs. The coverage the event received at the time barely scratched the surface in exploring the possibilities, and I’ve tried to go further on the radio show.
This isn’t to say that Steve Jobs was nothing more than a figurehead. Lest we forget, he assembled the staff that created great things first for NeXT and Pixar, and later for Apple when he returned to the company and became its chief executive. The illusion fostered in part by the media that Jobs is the one-man-band that did everything significant at Apple is clearly false. The people who surround him design the products, develop the software and then go out and sell all that stuff.
I firmly believe that this is where Apple has a huge advantage over Microsoft. Apple’s staff demonstrates extreme dedication and functions like a well-oiled machine. There are few missteps and they don’t waste money building products that are unsuccessful; well, except perhaps for the Apple TV. Then again, that’s supposedly a hobby and maybe by sheer perseverance they’ll figure out a way to give it some stature in the marketplace way beyond where it stands now.
With Microsoft, it doesn’t seem as if anything ever changes, however often they proclaim the intention to do something new and different. It’s almost as if they’re stuck in a time warp, believing that Apple’s ascendancy in different markets strictly represents a temporary phenomenon. Some day soon, they believe, Apple will falter, Firefox will fail, and Microsoft will again hold 95% of the browser and operating system markets.
They also evidently believe that they can succeed by throwing tons of money at a problem. Consider how much cash has been invested in developing Windows since the early days. Just Vista alone cost them billions, whereas Apple manages to prosper with a fraction of that investment. So why the disparity?
More to the point, Apple is organized in such a way that, if Jobs never returns to the company, they can continue to move in the same direction with cutting-edge products for many years. Permanent success is never guaranteed, but the current leadership clearly knows what it’s doing. I suppose that can be regarded as the lasting legacy of Steve Jobs.
The legacy of Bill Gates, in contrast, threatens to take the company down. Executives have changed, but the company still can’t deliver the goods on time and with all or most promised features intact. Microsoft still dumps loads of cash on worthless products, such as the Zune music player. Yes, it’s decent enough, but in a sea of decent-enough media players, the iPod took control. There’s nothing that forces Microsoft to continue to build gear most people simply don’t want, but they don’t understand when it’s time to drop an unsuccessful product and move on to something else.
In any case, yes, I would like to see Steve Jobs return to Apple as scheduled in late June, or perhaps even earlier to deliver a surprise keynote at the forthcoming WWDC. That would certainly comfort the Apple skeptics and, if nothing else, perhaps provide a further psychological boost to the stock price. Besides, Jobs is far too young to be sent out to pasture just yet, and I do hope he is on the mend and will remain healthy for a long, long time.
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