The Great “What Would Steve Jobs Do” Conspiracy

November 16th, 2016

When Walt Disney died at the “tender age” of 65 in 1966, the executives who took over his company were in a quandary. What to do next? What would Walt have done anyway? But the quest to look back also hurt the company’s direction for years. Critical decisions weren’t made, at least until they realized they had to let go and move on.

Apple’s succession plans evidently didn’t have that shortcoming. Steve Jobs reportedly told his chosen replacement, Tim Cook, never to fret over what he would do in any given circumstance. Jobs was evidently confident that those who came after him would do what they felt best going forward.

Assuming there are no secret ouija board sessions, or people meditating over what Jobs might have thought about a particular move, and I’m sure they aren’t doing such silly things, Apple’s path today may be very different. But that doesn’t mean that Jobs is tossing in his grave. Given the same circumstances, the same market conditions, he might have acted in similar ways. And if he didn’t, that wouldn’t make his approach more valid.

But that’s not the important thing.

To speculate on what could have, should have been, tech pundits are losing sight of reality. More to the point, they have little clue about what they are talking about. I dare say most of them never spent much or any time with Jobs. I met him very briefly twice, and cannot imagine knowing anything more about him other than observing that these encounters confirmed the feeling that he could be visibly and audibly rude when placed in an unplanned situation.

So certainly the executives he worked with for years would understand how he approached his work, and no doubt they understand how and why he made the decisions he made. So even if they are doing what they think best, they have assimilated some of Jobs’ creative DNA by working so closely with him. So even if there’s no conscious thought about what he’d do in a specific instance, there has to be a gut feeling of what moves to take, or not to take. Besides, it’s pretty clear that Jobs didn’t pack his executive offices with people who blindly said, “yes” to his every word or deed. As the story goes, he had to be persuaded to back the iPod and bring it to production; his first reaction was “no.”

That said, the critics have often said that Jobs would never have, for example, released a smaller iPad — the iPad mini. Why? Because he attacked small tablets, suggesting you needed to sandpaper your hands to use them. But as marketing VP Philip Schiller said at the time it was introduced, the 7.9-inch tablet had a lot more available screen real estate than 7-inch competitors, particularly since the latter had widescreen displays. So, yes, Schiller responded to the objection by explaining why it didn’t apply.

Or maybe the critics didn’t notice.

Apple made some compelling arguments about the 4-inch iPhone being more practical for one-handed use than larger smartphones. But it was also clear the market was moving in that direction, so Apple acted in a way that partly addressed such concerns, and moved on. Nowadays, it appears that a surprising number of customers are choosing the iPhone 7 Plus, although that might be very much about the nifty dual-camera system.

As for me, I have tried using the larger handsets, and I don’t like them, particularly when I attempt to put them in my pants pocket. A 4.7-inch smartphone is about as big as I can tolerate, though I suppose an end-to-end display might make the iPhone phablet more usable.

When it comes to Jobs, he was notorious for changing his opinions on a dime. He’d attack a product category — and consider the disparaging things he said once about mobile phones — and then Apple would release a product designed to answer those objections.

Do you remember when Apple said they’d never produce a cheap Mac because the company won’t build junk. One of those statements was made during a quarterly conference call with financial analysts not too many weeks before the Mac mini was launched. So Apple may not produce a cheap Mac, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t produce a cheaper Mac with an elegant design. Ditto for smaller iPods with flash memory.

Sometimes you wonder whether Apple makes the most vociferous objections to a product right before they respond with their own solution.

In any case, those clamoring for Tim Cook’s head, suggesting that Steve Jobs, were he alive and serving as Apple CEO now, would have acted differently and made better decisions, haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Sure, that’s very possible, but that doesn’t mean what Apple is doing is necessarily wrong. Although Apple sales are off the peak levels, to suggest the company is moving in the wrong direction is an unsupported claim.

Few, if any, of the journalists who think they know better than Apple would last five minutes in the company’s executive chair. If they are so smart, they should start their own tech company and show the industry the way.

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4 Responses to “The Great “What Would Steve Jobs Do” Conspiracy”

  1. dfs says:

    I think there’s a difference between asking what Steve would have done about thus-and-such a specific decision and trying to stick to the general principles Steve established for the company. For inst., in a different context I pointed out the other day that the alarming multiplication of Apple’s laptop offerings looks suspiciously like the pre-Steve plethora of different models of Mac, the severe pruning of which was one of his first acts as returning as CEO. His guiding principle was “keep it simple” and when Apple strays from it, one has a distinct sense that something’s going wrong.

    • gene says:

      So as the MacBook Air fades away, it’ll just be the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. The lineup of desktops is essentially the same as it was when Steve was alive.


  2. DaveD says:

    My daily readings never include any “what would Steve do” articles. As you said those tech pundits have no clue and very likely never knew Steve Jobs at all. My go-to is the Macalope at Macworld where I have always enjoyed his takedown on the many who wrote such pieces. Because the internet never forgets, the Macalope will show their flawed past writings about Apple and I get comic relief.

    The aluminum MacBook without a FireWire port was released in late 2008 and was gone eight months later. The polycarbonate model with FireWire marched on for another year and finally lost the port in a late 2009 unibody form. The MacBook updated in mid 2010 was doomed when the 11-inch MacBook Air showed up later in that year at the same price. The plastic MacBook disappeared after July 2011 and was re-introduced in a new aluminum form in 2015.

    There always been a lot of talk whenever Apple brings out a new product design. While some changes may make me unhappy, I would never blindly criticize Apple for doing so. I am reminded about Apple’s “Think Different” ads in the late nineties about “The Crazy Ones” which I can still see in action today. So, I can continue to use my old Mac or when the time comes buy a new one and just move on.

  3. Mac fan says:

    It is amazing how many commenters decry Cook and herald Jobs as if he could do no wrong, It’s almost as if Jobs’s proverbial RDF is still alive and well even after his passing.

    People forget that Jobs presided over plenty of mistakes– serious product flaws, failed launches, devices that didn’t sell well and were dropped, dysfunctional mobile services, etc.

    None of us know what Jobs would have decided these days, but your point is well taken that Apple itself has its own culture and DNA, one deeply shaped by his perspective.

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