What Apple loses without Steve

January 15, 2009

steve_jobs


– Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

“There’s probably no God” runs the slogan of an advertising campaign humanists are running on buses across Britain. But if the supreme being has his doubters, few question the importance of Steve Jobs to Apple Inc.

In a letter to employees on Wednesday, the Apple co-founder said he would take himself “out of the limelight” for six months after learning in the past week that his still vaguely defined “health issues” are “more complex than I originally thought.”

While Jobs paints his absence as a temporary medical leave — he retains the Apple CEO title even as he steps aside — his departure leaves a spiritual void at a company most people think of as inseparable from the man.

The miraculous career of the prophet of the personal computer revolution, the self-made billionaire known for a career of second acts, draws frequent religious parallels: one biography of him is entitled “The Second Coming of Steve Jobs”.

In the 33 years since he co-founded Apple, Jobs has attracted the fervent devotion of his followers — the Mac faithful, and more recently, iPod and iPhone fanatics. To them, Steve is a secular messiah; to his detractors, a cult-leader.

Apple’s unmatched record of hit products has only been achieved under the famously tyrannical leadership of Jobs, whose obsession with sleek design and the hard to define “cool” factor of his gadgets is unique in the corporate world. Again and again, it is this aesthetic, and Jobs’ commercial success exploiting it, that have distinguished Apple products from so many copycat competitors.

On some level, anyone who has ever admired an Apple product harbors a little bit of the “design Nazi” in his soul. Managers who have endured Jobs’ withering demands to create nothing but “insanely great” products may have absorbed this.

But is culture enough to overcome a vacuum of leadership? Much as Microsoft Corp has become a smaller place since Bill Gates has wound down his role at the software giant and Apple adversary, Jobs can only be sorely missed.

How far can a company, its executives, engineers and salespeople go on the mantra, “What would Steve Jobs think?”

To be sure Tim Cook, Apple’s chief operating officer, is taking over Jobs’ daily responsibilities and Jobs said he will retain strategic oversight of the company’s direction while on leave. The pipeline of product innovation looks well-stocked.

If it’s a question of the man being bigger than the company, then Apple, which popularized the personal computer, the personal digital assistant and the handheld music player and is staking its claim on reinventing the mobile phone and, perhaps even, eventually, the television, is in big trouble.

CONTEMPLATING THE UNTHINKABLE

Inside Apple, the delicacy of Jobs’ planned absence was summed up in the innocuous headline given the company’s most dramatic announcement in years: The bombshell press release was simply entitled: “Apple Media Advisory.”

As if the only interested audience were baying reporters.

The news comes as a shock, but little surprise. It caps more than a year of widespread concern over the health of Jobs, aged 53 and a survivor of pancreatic cancer. More recently, his gaunt appearance and dramatic weight loss have added to the worries.

The immediate reaction to Jobs’ departure notice was a 6 percent decline in Apple stock. But the shares have fallen 60 percent after touching $200 at the end of 2007. It’s difficult to separate the impact of Steve Jobs’ health mysteries from the general decline all stocks have seen since then.

Wall Street analyst Shaw Wu argues that while Jobs deserves a lot of credit for the revival of Apple, “we believe the company has a deep bench and its culture of innovation and execution has more or less been institutionalized.”

Not so fast. Recall the dark years of Apple history starting sometime after 1985 and lasting until he returned in 1997. The famous Apple culture remained in place but product missteps and management in-fighting were the result.

The success of Apple has rarely been its technical innovation or engineering rigor. In that sense Cook is simply a placeholder. The company’s hit products all share a fascination with functionality and beauty that is unmatched in other gadgets. It is Jobs’ taste, his commitment to design and his micro-management of talent that drives Apple.

Jobs has pulled together Apple after the years of drift. That he has done so by being a control freak with a clear vision does not diminish his accomplishments. It’s hard to imagine how his despotism will be replaced.

– At the time of publication Eric Auchard did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns, click here. –

18 comments

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I’m not worried about Apple. They make wonderful products. I bought my first Apple computer last year and it’s operating system is a dream. I’ll never go back to Microsoft. Only their CEO is taking a break not the entire company. Just go into ANY Apple store and experience the great customer service. A great product and great customer service. The press is creating a panic. Report on some of the real issues facing this country ie health care, jobs and so forth. Leave this company alone!!!! And no, I’m not an Apple employee. I’m a 65 year old grandmother.

Posted by Dedra McDade | Report as abusive

Where is the effusive thanks to this man who in his prime has given so much to the tech world.Where is the compassion of the media, Wall Street, the board at Apple in offering this fine man wishes of abundant good health, a pain free journey in what may be his final few months of life. Stock prices? New Products? What a soul-less many you are.

Posted by flowersandlichens | Report as abusive

In the period between when Mr. Jobs was unceremoniously dumped from Apple and when they essentially begged that he return, Apple was poorly run by people who did not understand in the least what Apple represented to its dwindling customer base. As well, the played around with ideas but produced little product and there was much to criticise in terms of productivity and inventory management. Further, the operating system was antiquated and sometimes arcane with patches galore and funky flakey errors. When Mr. Jobs returned he came bearing NeXT and with it a unix underpinning which was what Apple wisely chose to replace the again Mac OS. The rest is as they say..HISTORY. But empthatically, this is history and there is a future to Apple that may or may not include Mr. Jobs. It is no longer the same company at all as it was before his return. It is a serious top draw company filled with brilliant engineers and designers as well as public relations people who make other companies sit up and take notice. This is not going to disappear if Steve Jobs takes a well needed rest either temporary or permanent from the CEO position. What do people think goes on in Apple? The CEO does not make every decision, design everything, invent everything. There are dozens who help make these decisions, and hundreds who design, arrange the fabrication, come forward with the ideas and product designs and this will not change. No doubt Mr. Jobs has a wonderful sense of what is needed or wanted in the marketplace but I suspect it is not he alone who ought to gain some of the credit. We shall see if I am correct in this observation over the next years.

Posted by Neil Fiertel | Report as abusive

To be perfectly honest for a number of years I was not an apple fan. However I have become an afficiando to a point that I have all my computers Mac and an I phone and I pod.
I am very much impressed with the attention to detail on all of the products made by Apple. Having spent my entire working career working at Estee Lauder I learned from Mrs Lauder what the results are going to be with attention to detail to a point beyond description. With Mr Jobs he is the only person that I have seen in American Business with the same drive and determination that Mrs Lauder lived by.
The success of Apple is due to him . Yet if he did his homework well Apple as like Estee Lauder will thrive for many many years even if Mr Jobs retires in 20or 30 years. That culture is the real legacy that a real founder instills in their companies.

Dear Flowersandlichens:

The effusive thanks was edited out of my piece somewhere along the way.

Here is what I wrote:

It is not often you get to use the word epiphany in writing about a corporate executive. But it applies to Steve Jobs. His products enable millions of people to have epiphanies every day — in the intimate interactions they have with music or video or software on Apple devices. Many happy users, I for one, owe Steve Jobs a great note of thanks and best wishes on his health.

I was writing a column about the impact Jobs’ absence may have on Apple Inc, however. That is a different issue.

Way back in 1988, I purchased a PC – Epson Equity II. It came with a two inch thick
“guide book”. Fast forward three years, and me staring at this “thing”. In a moment of weakness, I spray painted the entire monitor and CPU with gold paint. I placed it in my store window as a symbol of “stupidity”. Silence reigned for next seven years. I was given a G3, 400 Mhz IMac. I approached it with rancor and within a week I was ecstatic to find out I was not mentally impaired….I am still not computer savvy, but I am content and approach my computer without trepidation. I only wish that there were Apple stores in areas that are not malls. The Chicago downtown store is a vision of beauty
but difficult to reach. ALL of the other stores are hopelessly located in distant areas.
The real estate department of Apple is the only serious flaw in this wonderful company.
To them I say: Oak Park-River Forest – look and learn and open a mid-size store and you could not handle the crowds….. Back to my MacBook.

Posted by Sciolle36 | Report as abusive

Jobs was almost impossible to work with, but driven visionaries are mostly that way. It’s how they get such great things done, and some subordinates are better able than others to withstand his fury and follow his bidding toward the next great product. That is the Apple way…make the next product king and forget the many Jobs insults. Some could, most could not.

I do think he is dying and will be gone in 6 months.

Posted by richard | Report as abusive

He should concentrate on getting well. Pancreatic cancer is basically something you don’t rebound from. Jack Benny had it, and it did him in. Let’s hope it hasn’t spread completely through out Steve’s entire pancreas. I think the writing will probably be very clear on the wall once, the tests are back. Let’s hope he put’s someone in his stead who thinks exactly like he does. Knows the importance of design and function. Few people in the computing industry fully understand that concept. Sony Vio is the only company taking it’s cure from Apple. Who’s next??

Posted by Rob Crawford | Report as abusive

Remember the 90′s without Steve Jobs until 1999 Apple was at a stand still (http://www.scribd.com/doc/176946/Apple- Product-Timeline-Map). I love Apple and want Jobs to make a recovery – but I worry.

Posted by Andril | Report as abusive

God bless Steve Jobs. I hope his health improves rapidly so that he may get on with his life, and the part he plays in the lives of us who are loyal to things Apple. My iMac is the best (fastest, easiest to use, intuitive, well thought out and just plain FUN) computing machine I have ever used and I absolutely love the fact that it accomplishes all that in the form of a true work of art. Funny, I never once felt that about ANY of my heat-belching, crashing, BSOD, Windows PCs…

Seriously, Steve will remain in my prayers for as long as they are needed. It’s really quite nice to have a crush on someone with a BRAIN in addition to their attractive packaging. Just don’t tell my husband I said that….

Posted by MommyWoman | Report as abusive

The people who are going to pray for Mr.Jobs should remember that only about 60 years ago (when I was young) praying for a cure
for a medical problem was very often of no use at all

It is better to put your trust in the current generation of Medical Professions .
They frequently get a good outcome.

Not that most people appreciate them .Still go in for saying “Thank God” when they recover.

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive

Get well, Steve.

I imagine that Steve Jobs can be an SOB to work for (and I heard the same about Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson). But their people are (were in Johnson’s case) dedicated and darn good at their work. An inspirational manager who knows what he’s doing can be tough cookie to work for but, for the talented, immensely satisfying.

My guess is that Jobs has cultivated a culture at Apple that breeds success.

Rush Limbaugh had an excellent monologue last week praising Steve Jobs’ business acumen and devotion to success at Apple. Rush said the country needs more Steves. Ditto that.

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

To think that Apple will be the same without Steve is just silly. Steve Jobs is Apple and for anyone not to belive that is just foolish. There are only a few men in our history that have thoughts and visions that others don’t have. Steve is one of those unique men. The Apple name of course will go on but the products will not have the same inovation that we have seen in the past. Apple employees may be great, but you can’t teach vision and thats what will be lost when we loose Steve.
Get well Steve the world needs your vision.

Posted by John Glenn | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Jobs,
I feel for you, I also have pancreatic cancer and it has spread to my liver. I was pregnant and I lost my baby due to my illness. All I can do is cry and pray. You are in my prayers. Sincerely Kimberly Sipes

Posted by Kym Sipes | Report as abusive

I certainly wish the best for he and his family. I love macintosh. I have owned 6 of them and all have worked without a hitch. My oldest one from 97′ still works as it did then.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

I am a 65 years old grandmother who just purchased her third computer last week.
This time it is an iMac (top of the line). First time I have an Apple computer.
It was suggested by my daughters who themselves have brand new iMac with all the bells and whistles and love them.
I was worried that I would have a hard time getting used to it.
It was super easy. I love it.
Everything is simple and almost perfect in the world of Mac.
Super customer service. Great company. Wish all companies were the same.
Steve Jobs is truly a genius, and a visionary.
Your are in my prayers Steve. God bless you.

Posted by rosa diaz | Report as abusive

Actually doesn’t look good for Steve and that’s so sad. The chances of him doing for the next 10, what he’s been doing for the past ten years are not good.

Steve drove the PC, and now the mobile industry! His contributions to OS, user interface and product design, media and software marketing are simply unmatched in the history of technology. Period.

Steve drove the PC industry in many respects by creating something MS had to at least attempt to do as well or better than. Apple has more control across the OS-hardware so they have a better time presenting a system that is truely integrated with the hardware.

Any other company that comes even close, is emulating Apple, Sony Vaio comes to mind ;-) I love my Sony, and I like picking up a 16″ laptop with one hand, light as a feather. And I’m very clear on the fact that my Vaio would not exist, would not be nearly as nice, would cost far more, etc if it was not the fact that they had a MBP to copy and steal ideas from.

And MS would work half as hard on their OS if they didn’t have Steve breathing down their neck, threatening to license Apple OS if MS starts sluffing off and losing market share.

Mid-90s, I agree Apple had little vision and no direction, was crap OS, patches, bother. I abandoned my Macs, couldn’t take my machine crashing so much. And Windows 95 at some point was simply better. If only because there was 10 times more software available and the OS was fully backward compatible with old PC software, where I was paying to update Apple software to get it to run. Linux was interesting too, so lots of alternatives to expensive machines that crashed constantly from Apple.

But since purchasing an iPhone, I’ve seen some new light from Apple. It surely surpasses the BSD with an new windowing system that is OSX. The gestures and the ideas presented in the interface, as well as the itunes software installs, all just stunning works of usability in computing. It’s more of a PC than a phone, but it has done much to merge media, communications and computing into one portable platform.

By far the most innovative product of the new millinium, the iPhone without question is driving the heart of the mobile industry just as the MBP drove the heart of the portable PC industry, just as the desktop machines Apple first released with OSX raised the bar and drove a great deal of PC innovation and copy catting by MS.

One facinating thing is the Goolge is far from matching what Apple has done, with it’s mobile Android. And Vista is only now getting close to what Apple has had with MBP for a long time now. My Vista Viao is wonderful, once I spend an hour configuring Vista to be efficient to use, turning off it’s security and installing my own.

But Apple has always appealed to a smaller market of high end users willing to pay for the best. And that has limited it’s direct market, as people are willing to wait for the knock-offs from the rest of the industry 1, 2 or 3 years down the road.

I think we take this aspect of Apple for granted. and will see a very different industry if Jobs leaves Apple, left to it’s own and I’d give it a year or two tops, before they start down the typical road of a company without it’s visionary founder.

One caveat; the vision of Steve is great, he has no ambition to leave Apple to start a new company, as he did with NEXT, and so he will be willing to share his long range thinking, unlike last time he left Apple on the rocks… (NEXT was just a way of creating a new platform and OS, and selling it back to Apple at a profit.)

Posted by jeffp | Report as abusive

Apple makes some wonderful products. However, their arrogance in terms of failing to provide a sufficiently powerful computer at a reasonable price, the way the Windows community does is very disappointing. Bring down the prices, boost the RAM and maybe get some of the Apple store people to curtail their technological high priest/priestess attitudes. Do that, and just maybe you will have the Windows community consider developing products that react to the Mac, instead of the other way around.

Posted by Michael Rhian Driscoll | Report as abusive