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Raising Expectations About Apple

In the aftermath of the death of Steve Jobs, there have been loads of speculative pieces about the future of Apple Inc. The pressure is on for Apple to demonstrate that the company was not the one man band some believed it to be because of the genius of the co-founder, and how he restored a dying company to prominence.

The theory goes that Steve Jobs micromanaged every facet of the company’s operations, and, without him at the helm, everything will eventually begin to fall apart. This law of entropy has certainly impacted other companies after their charismatic and visionary founders have departed. You can cite chapter and verse as to how such corporations as the Walt Disney Company and HP fared, particularly the latter which, in recent years, has struggled to find its way.

Certainly there’s reason to be concerned. When Jobs was ousted from Apple in a brush up with the board of directors and CEO John Scully in 1985, Apple spent over a decade suffering a gradual, seemingly inevitable decline. When Jobs returned first as an advisor in 1996, after Apple bought NeXT, it was very possible there would be no more Macs in the near future. Apple was hemorrhaging cash, suffering from too many products that didn’t earn their keep. There were many credible reports indicating that Apple was probably dead, and there was that infamous remark from Michael Dell, founder of Dell, who suggested Apple ought to be shut down and its assets returned to the shareholders.

Over the next 15 years, Apple managed to amaze both critics and customers by doing the unexpected. Time after time, new products seemed irrelevant or underwhelming, only to be embraced by customers who had different ideas. Today, the iPod is a great success story, but few believed that the very first version, released in 2001 and costing $399 for a gadget with 5GB of storage, would catch on and take over the market. Indeed, Tony Fadell, credited as the iPod’s inventor, got a pass wherever he went when he tried to interest tech companies in his concept. Jobs understood the potential, took a chance, and the rest is history.

In the wake of denigrating the quality of existing mobile phones, Apple announced the iPhone. We only learned later that it was evidently a fork in the project to develop the iPad. But again, the critics were skeptical that the thing would catch on. After all, people who wanted smartphones bought a BlackBerry in those days. The mobile handset market was saturated, so how could Apple possibly succeed?

The story of the iPad was similar. Critics weren’t impressed. It’s just a bloated iPod touch. Microsoft had spent years trying to convince you to buy tablet-based PCs without success. Why should you take Apple seriously where others had failed with similar products?

Of course, the public disagreed. The iPod, iPhone and the iPad all caught on quite quickly, exceeding analyst expectations about sales in nearly every case. Well, these days, analysts seem to have a better grasp of Apple’s potential.

Now if Steve Jobs were here and healthy, and if he introduced the iPhone 4s last week, I expect the critics would call it another home run, even though it looked the same as the previous model. After all, that approach to product refreshes is standard operating procedure at Apple, where they leap generations before revising the looks.

But the pressure was on Tim Cook to demonstrate that he was the proper replacement for Jobs, and could exceed your expectations. Although his delivery at last week’s media event seemed efficient and well-rehearsed, Cook is regarded as too low-key to ever create something akin to the famous “reality distortion field” that Jobs can convey during his presentations. Cook is an operations person, not a public personality, not a sales guru. The bar was raised too high, and he had to fail, even though he actually did a pretty decent job. In retrospect, maybe it would be better for Cook to try to convey a less-formal demeanor, and maybe his personality would come through more effectively.

Don’t forget, though, that Cook hasn’t had years to master a public persona. Maybe he’ll never get the knack, maybe we’ll just get used to him. It doesn’t matter as much because, in recent years, the ailing Steve Jobs gave his lieutenants more and more screen time in those presentations. They had their chances to shine, and the media events remained slick affairs with great visuals, and compelling arguments.

Certainly, the public has reacted quite favorably to the iPhone 4s, with record numbers of pre-orders. But it will take a while for the critics to take Apple quite as seriously without Jobs at the helm. That is to be expected, and even though it’s reported that Jobs had already approved a number of product intros for the next few years, Apple is going to have to continue to prove it’s in good hands.

In the short term, little will change. But over time, even if the efforts of Steve Jobs to embed his vision and DNA into the corporation prove successful, things will change. That’s inevitable, but in the end, it may well be that they will be changes you can believe in.