It’s inevitable. Steve Jobs’ footprint on Apple was so large, so all-encompassing, that it’s hard to look at the company he co-founded without feeling his presence. Certainly Apple’s situation before Jobs returned for his second coming is a key reason why. In the early-to-mid-1990s, Apple went through several incompetent CEOs, the strategy was failing, and they were burning money real fast. It was easy to accept the threat of their imminent departure as real, which is why the word “beleaguered” was often uttered in the same sentence as Apple.
When it came to a corporate presentation, whether a Macworld Expo keynote or separate media event, Jobs ran the show, although other Apple executives and representatives from other companies did make brief appearances. Only in his final years did his coworkers get extra time on stage, and maybe that was largely because Jobs wanted you to know that he wasn’t the only person responsible for the company’s success.
Even though CEO Tim Cook is surely making his own mark, he is destined to operate in the shadow of Steve Jobs for at least a few years, at least when it comes to media perceptions. He won’t prove himself unless Apple continues to execute at an amazing rate, with new products and continued record profits year after year.
Now I realize this makes sense, particularly since memories are long, and Apple doesn’t have a stellar history with CEOs other than Jobs. I suppose John Scully did all right for a while, and it’s true that Macs became more viable products for content creators under his leadership. Also, let’s not forget the LaserWriter and the desktop publishing revolution, which afforded Apple a loyal coterie of Mac users who stuck with the platform over the years through thick and thin. And it was mostly thin for quite awhile until the changes Jobs made began to take hold.
But the current state of affairs has made some journalists hypercritical of Apple, as they complain about the lack of product changes that they’d would never have complained about if Jobs was still running the company. In a sense, Cook is being forced to achieve a higher standard of excellence as a result. Unfortunate, but true.
Besides, as I’ve already said, the products that Apple has so far introduced were pretty much finalized while Jobs was still alive, and that includes OS X Mountain Lion and the third generation iPad. That will likely be true for the next iPhone and iPad as well, and maybe even Mountain Lion’s successor (10.9?). What the means is that any perceived shortcomings in those products might as well be blamed on Jobs as well, unless those shortcomings were the result of changes made during the final stages of preproduction and quality control testing. But that certainly wouldn’t apply to the form factor of the iPhone 4s or the third generation iPad. It’s not as if Tim Cook flew down to the Foxconn production lines and demanded significant last minute form factor changes before those products reached the store shelves.
If Apple does indeed deliver a smart TV set later this year or some time in 2013, that, too, will be based in large part on the decisions made by Steve Jobs. What will count are the decisions Apple’s executives are making now for products that will take the company through the middle and latter part of the decade. If Tim Cook ever thinks, even for a moment, “What would Steve do?” he would be making a serious error. Apple cannot respond to the future needs of the company while resting on their laurels. Apple has never really looked backward, which is why there are no anniversary products or specials, and why, among other things, they are so eager to throw out older technologies and embrace new ones.
But it’s also important to look at the broad bench of talented executives that Jobs brought to the company. Consider the snazzy looks of Apple’s gear and imagine what might have happened were it not for the presence of Sir Jonathan Ive as head of the design team. Tim Cook revolutionized Apple’s production cycle and inventory controls, which are at the core of the reasons he rose so high in the company’s ranks and became the number one CEO candidate.
These days, Cook has already placed his stamp on Apple’s corporate philosophy and behavior. From employee donations to the relationships with the suppliers who assemble Apple’s gear, Cook has been front and center. Consider that recent photo of him Foxconn plant, and you will recall that there’s no comparable photo of Jobs. Sure, Jobs surely visited those plants, but no photo-ops please. Cook realized the media was watching, and he observed the politics of the situation in a smart fashion.
Besides, how many people buy Apple gear because of who runs the company? Yes, we might be fully aware of the life and times of Steve Jobs and, in fact, Tim Cook. But most of Apple’s customers aren’t paying attention to those fine details. They have better things to do.