The Apple Cult of Personality

September 14th, 2011

As you know, the stock market barely budged when Steve Jobs revealed what some regarded as inevitable, that he was stepping down as Apple’s CEO. Few were surprised that COO Tim Cook, who had served as acting CEO during Jobs’ extended sick leaves, will retain the top job. That, plus a million shares of stock, was designed to keep Cook plying his trade at Apple for the foreseeable future.

After Jobs stepped down as CEO, most members of the media treated the announcement as the beginning of a new era at Apple. Without Jobs overseeing and micromanaging product vision and development, how would Apple fare against heated competition, particularly in the mobile marketplace? Indeed, many of the stories about Jobs’ tenure at Apple seem little different from eulogies, as if he is no longer around.

The truth is rather different. As most of you know, Jobs assumed the post of Chairman of the Board, and remains an Apple employee. The informed speculation has it that Jobs is simply not well enough to sustain the long workdays that are required of the CEO, which often involve tasks that are far beyond the essentials of working with products, marketing, and devising company strategy. Indeed, it may well be that Jobs will be able to better concentrate on the things he does best, leaving it to others to handle the rest.

Certainly, I do not pretend to know the seriousness of his illness. Some speculate his ability to work varies from day to day, and that it may only be a matter of time before he has to quit. It may well be that he is simply slowing down at the advice of his doctors to help improve his long-term prospects for survival. I prefer not to engage in morbid speculation, however, since I just don’t know.

What is forgotten is that Apple is not a one-man band, never was. The second coming of Steve Jobs became a successful reign because of teamwork. Apple has a huge bench of brilliant people who develop and test products, devise marketing strategy, build and distribute those goods. To believe that Jobs somehow did all those things is downright absurd. At last count, Apple has over 50,000 full-time and part-time workers around the world, plus all the people who assemble Apple’s iconic gadgets at a number of contract factories. Steve Jobs may be great at imagining what people need — as opposed to what they say they want — but it takes a large crew of talented people to make it all happen.

In recent years, Apple media events have featured some of the people who manage Apple’s software and marketing divisions. Since returning to Apple in late 1996, Jobs has reportedly instilled into his crew the corporate DNA, understanding that he can’t be there forever, and that the company must carry on.

Unfortunately, far too many people look at Apple’s early history, when the company flailed and nearly went under in the years after Jobs was ousted in a corporate coup. In those days, the mercurial Jobs clearly didn’t have the business acumen to plan for his departure, and prepare for successors. That was then, and this is now. Today, Apple is the number one tech company on the planet, with sophisticated management that is quite capable of continuing to follow through on Jobs’ vision, even when he is no longer around even to serve as Chairman.

This doesn’t mean Apple’s future is assured, anymore than it would be had Jobs been healthy, hearty, and prepared to serve as CEO for life. Nothing stops another high-power tech company from building better gear, and taking the industry in new directions that Apple’s powerful management never envisioned. Where once high-flying companies as HP flail because of changes in the market, and the inability to move fast enough, Apple cannot possibly be assured of growing ahead of the industry forever.

Indeed, one key reason why the iPhone and iPad are so successful these days is simply because the competition lacks vision. The Android OS, for better or worse, doesn’t advance the state of the art of mobile operating systems. It’s just an alternative to the iOS that may be better in some ways, inferior in others. When it comes to the hardware, handset makers clearly have no clue what customers want. All they can do is sell specs. In the tablet market, the iPad is destined to be king of the hill for quite a while. Other tablets come across as “almost iPads,” struggling to imitate rather than innovate.

Sure, Microsoft hopes things will change with Windows 8, which will support both the traditional AMD/Intel chips, and ARM. But building a tablet in the image of a PC has already been done without much success. Whether Microsoft truly gets it this time is a huge question mark. It’s not as if Windows Phone 7, despite decent reviews, has set the smartphone market afire.

For now, Steve Jobs and Apple will remain tightly intertwined. As the company moves on, following in his footsteps, time will tell how thick his DNA really is, and whether the rest of the industry has the courage to prove they can build superior products.

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One Response to “The Apple Cult of Personality”

  1. barryotoole says:

    “Steve Jobs may be great at imagining what people need — as opposed to what they say they want — but it takes a large crew of talented people to make it all happen.”

    This is the most important line in the entire essay.

    Only time will tell if SJ:

    • is the glue that holds all this together. Vision is an abstract thing, and it may be a catalyst that powers the engine. Apple is a well oiled machine, but SJ could be the soul of the being that matters. Even with an outstanding executive bench, can this ‘vision thing’ be sustained?

    • was the spine of the company. Would TC be able to say NO to a project without a murmur of dissent? Nobody at Apple could/would question SJ when he axes the Newton and reduced the Mac lineup to four. Going forward, would Apple to able to take actions like ditching the floppy first, and then the CD-ROM that replaced it?

    • was the hard negotiator that made Apple lead in several instances. The creation of iTMS by forcing the Big Music to comply, first with letting in their wares, and later removing the DRMs, was a big coup. Another was the original iPhone: AT&T’s management saw the device only a few days before the rest of the world did; they were betting on a device whose capabilities were unknown to them. Could this be replicated as Apple moves forward to disrupt other industries?

    • was singularly capable of taking risks. This is one of the main traits that defined Apple. There are other successful companies, but few CEOs have the balls to take a chance, often cannabalizing their own, successful, product to introduce a new futuristic one.

    I’m not asserting that anyone is irreplaceable. It is always a turmulous period when the founders step down, like at HP and Disney.

    Fortunately, SJ is still with us, and hopefully will have more time and less burden on his shoulders to contemplate on his ‘vision’. May God grant him a long life so we all can benefit.

    Obviously, by being naming TC as the CEO, the defacto role he has been playing has now been officially recognized.

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