It's official: Steve Jobs is stepping down--temporarily--from his post at Apple Computer, taking a medical leave of absence to deal with a health problem that has turned out to be "more complex" than the celebrity CEO had originally disclosed prior to the Macworld Expo event earlier this month. On a personal level, I can't help but have a great deal of sympathy for Jobs and his family at this undoubtedly difficult time. But as a longtime Apple observer, Mac user, and general technology wonk, I can't help wondering what might come of Apple if and, inevitably one day, when Jobs eventually retires permanently from his role as the company's spiritual and temporal leader.
A whole lot of notions come to mind when you think of Steve Jobs. He's a charismatic figure, of course, one of the true tech visionaries who saw the role that computers would ultimately play in our personal lives many years before any given computer was capable of living up to his vision. He's an innovator, pushing incessantly to bring new ideas to market, sometimes for the worse (like that toilet-seat iBook), but often for the better (iPhone, anyone?).
To say that Jobs has earned a reputation as a difficult person to work for would be putting it mildly. Tales of his ceaseless browbeating of Apple employees are the stuff of legend, but this appears to have done nothing to lessen the respect that his minions feel for him. An obsessive tyrant he may be, but it seems that those who serve under him would follow him into the gates of hell without a second thought.
Meanwhile, the public face of Steve Jobs--that enthusiastic grin with which he declares every single new feature of every new Apple product to be "amazing," "incredible," or "unbelievable"--manages to inspire a deep affection and loyalty among consumers that no person in the world of technology (or any other business, for that matter) can match. Even when he billed the terrible old iMac hockey-puck mouse as "the coolest mouse on the planet" back in 1998, he managed to elicit a totally sincere wow from his audience of faithful devotees. What other CEO can work such Jedi mind tricks?
It's hard to imagine anyone--either among Apple's current leadership or elsewhere--taking the place of Steve Jobs. Certainly Apple's 11-year streak of successes has owed a great deal to the hard work of the many people under Jobs' command, but a look at the company's history suggests that without Jobs, there might well be no Apple Computer left today.
After Steve Jobs was ousted from the company by John Scully back in 1985, the company entered a fairly steady decline--one which many educated observers predicted would culminate in the company's demise--until Jobs returned to take the helm in 1997. Almost immediately, the Mac was back. Jobs put a stop to the Mac clone business that had kept the platform mired in mediocrity for years and released the iMac, then the iBook, then the cult-popular Cube and, of course, the iPod, iTunes, and the iPhone. Looking back at the wave of hot products the company churned out year after year, it's hard not to see the hand of Steve Jobs in every success.
What would Apple become in a post-Steve Jobs world? It's hard to say. Undoubtedly there is enough talent in the company's engineering and design teams to keep making innovative products that consumers will covet. But is there anyone who can lead that team as effectively as Jobs? Can anyone make the tough and risky calls that have defined Jobs' resurrection of that company? I have a hard time imagining any of the Apple's current execs--including the company's low-key COO Tim Cook, who will now be filling in for Jobs--stepping into that role with the same fire and intensity that have become synonymous with the name of Steve Jobs. And without that caliber of obsessively driven leadership, it's difficult to imagine how Apple, the underdog brand in the PC platform war, can continue driving its market share upward against Microsoft's pervasive presence.
Besides, who else at Apple can get so much mileage out of a simple, black turtleneck?