What If Jobs Doesn't Return To Apple?

Regardless of what Apple honchos said at today's shareholder meeting, I have come to the sad conclusion that Steve Jobs will never return to the helm at Apple. This is another of those “I hope am wrong, but . . .” posts that I hate to write. But, skipping the shareholder meeting is a more than subtle hint that Jobs won’t be back in the active role he’s enjoyed, if at all.

Expanding upon the above paragraph takes me down a road I don’t want to travel. So, I will keep Steve in my prayers and hope the future proves me wrong.

It is unfair to expect anyone to be a suitable successor to Steve Jobs. I was following Apple after Jobs was forced out in 1985 and replaced first by John Sculley and, later, Gil Amelio. Both made the mistake, I think, of believing they were running a computer company.

Apple under Steve Jobs is not a company but a phenomenon. A micromanaged manifestation of one man’s view of technology, design, and the world. Apple is about a sensibility as much as it’s about anything else.

True, smart business decisions have helped. Sculley and Amelio could never get the OS issue solved. Jobs did it in a way seemed almost graceful. Building a new operating system using Unix under the Apple user interface has been a huge win.

Apple also, wisely, reversed its traditional course of “our way or the highway” and embraced both Windows and Intel. It was not until the iPod came to Windows that the music player really took off. I think I called it a three-year-old “overnight sensation” when iTunes for Windows hit it big.

Going to the Intel processor has given Apple a great platform for innovating around the edges, which is really what the company does best: Take things that other people have already done or invented and if not perfect them then at least run them through Steve Jobs’ view of how the world ought to be.

Outsiders are not privy to how decisions are made at Apple. People who know are afraid of getting fired if they tell, which probably says quite enough. Still, I’d like to get a handle on the extent to which other people have ideas that Jobs accepts vs. only Steve has the great ideas.

My impression is the latter has been true in the past. Is it still true? I hope not, but the idea of a meeting where a dozen people tell Steve that he’s wrong and live to tell about it just doesn’t sound like the Apple we know and (begrudgingly) love.

As for the present: Tim Cook is not a succession plan. Nor is Phil Schiller, though I like him a lot. We should expect that Apple has a decent product pipeline in place, so the immediate future has likely been decided.

But, does anyone at Apple have the gravitas (and vision) to cut the deals that made the iTunes Store such an incredible success? No one in the industry or even global business seems to be able to build whole ecosystems the way Jobs can.

This is significantly because of the incredible control Jobs exerts over Apple, and Apple exerts over the environment in which it exists. Microsoft is bigger, but has never achieved the level of world domination Apple enjoys in its, albeit, much smaller world. You can thank the antitrust regulators for that, plus Microsoft’s decision not to get into the PC hardware business.

As long as Steve Jobs can read a memo or look at designs and say, “this one, not that one,” Apple is remains in good hands. But, we have already seen what happens when Apple loses its vision. When that happens, as it eventually must, it's not clear Apple’s creative culture will be able to pick up where one man’s vision leaves off.

David Coursey has used Apple computers since before Macintosh. He hopes you can convince him this post is totally wrong. Write to: david@coursey.com.

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