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The Great “What Would Steve Jobs Do” Conspiracy

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.