When Steve Jobs resigned as the chief executive of Apple on Wednesday, his note to the public and the Apple board was short and classy. The gist was this: “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s C.E.O., I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.”
As you can imagine, this news is rocking the world — and not just the tech world. Mr. Jobs, after all, has almost single-handedly reshaped a stunning range of industries: music, TV, movies, software, cellphones, and cloud computing. The products he’s shepherded into existence with single-minded vision read like a Top 10 list, or a Top 50 list, of the world’s most successful inventions: Macintosh. iPod. iPhone. iTunes. iMovie. iPad.
He’s done pretty well for Apple stockholders, too. Ten years ago Apple’s stock was at $9 a share; today, it’s $376. Apple is neck-and-neck with Exxon Mobil for the title of world’s most valuable company.
Most of the reactions online today read like obituaries — for Steve Jobs, if not for Apple.
Is that appropriate? Well, only Mr. Jobs’s inner circle knows how sick he actually is. (He was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2004, had a liver transplant in 2009 and has had health troubles ever since.) But nobody, not even Mr. Jobs, can say for sure whether Apple can still be Apple without him at the helm.
There are three reasons that it might — and one big reason that it might not.
The good news: First, Mr. Jobs isn’t leaving Apple. He’ll remain as chairman of the Apple board. Tim Cook, who’s been Apple’s director of operations for seven years, will take over as chief executive. (He’s been acting C.E.O. since January.)
You can bet that as chairman, Mr. Jobs will still be the godfather. He’ll still be pulling plenty of strings, feeding his vision to his carefully built team, and weighing in on the company’s compass headings.
Second, the tech world doesn’t turn on a dime. Apple’s pipeline is already stuffed with at least a couple of years’ worth of Jobs-directed products. In the short term, you won’t see any difference in Apple’s output of cool, popular inventions.
Third, even if Mr. Jobs isn’t sitting at every design meeting, ripping apart or heartily embracing each idea presented to him, his tastes, methods and philosophies are deeply entrenched in the company’s blood.
In Silicon Valley, success begets success. And at this point, few companies have as high a concentration of geniuses — in technology, design and marketing — as Apple. Leaders like the design god Jonathan Ive and the operations mastermind Tim Cook won’t let the company go astray.
So it’s pretty clear that for the next few years, at least, Apple will still be Apple without Mr. Jobs as involved as he’s been for years.
But despite these positive signs, there’s one heck of a huge elephant in the room — one unavoidable reason why it’s hard to imagine Apple without Mr. Jobs steering the ship: personality.
His personality made Apple Apple. That’s why no other company has ever been able to duplicate Apple’s success. Even when Microsoft or Google or Hewlett-Packard tried to mimic Apple’s every move, run its designs through the corporate copying machine, they never succeeded. And that’s because they never had such a single, razor-focused, deeply opinionated, micromanaging, uncompromising, charismatic, persuasive, mind-blowingly visionary leader.
By maintaining so much control over even the smallest design decisions, by anticipating what we all wanted even before we did, by spotting the promise in new technologies when they were still prototypes, Steve Jobs ran Apple with the nimbleness of a start-up company, even as he built it into one of the world’s biggest enterprises.
“I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it,” Mr. Jobs wrote in his resignation letter.
That’s a wonderful endorsement. But really? Can he really mean that Apple’s days will be brighter and more innovative without him in the driver’s seat?
Tim Cook gets rave reviews as an executive and numbers guy. But is he a Jobs-style visionary? Does he have Jobs-style charisma? Does he have a Jobsian reality distortion field? In 2001, would he have been able to convince the record companies to sell their music for $1 a song? In 2005, would he have had the force of personality to make Cingular redesign its voice-mail system for the iPhone’s visual voice mail? In 2009, would he have been able to cow AT&T into offering a no-contract-required, month-at-a-time data plan for the iPad?
Will he have the crazy confidence to kill off technologies he sees as dying, as Mr. Jobs has over and over again (floppy drive, dial-up modem, and, in Mac OS X Lion, even faxing)?
Does he know where the puck of public taste will come to rest two years from now? Five years from now?
There’s an awful lot of Steve Jobs in Apple, and an incredible amount of talent at its Cupertino headquarters. So no matter what happens, Apple will not slowly sink into a directionless, uncharacterizable, spread-thin blob like, say, Yahoo or Hewlett-Packard or Microsoft.
But what will happen when Mr. Jobs’s pipeline is no longer full, and when his difficult, brilliant, charismatic, future-shaping personality is no longer the face of Apple?
It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see another 15 years of blockbuster, culture-changing hits like the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad — from Apple or anyone else. And that’s really, really sad.
Thank you, Mr. Jobs, for an incredible run. The worlds of culture, media and technology have never seen anything like you.
In your new role, we wish you health, rest and happiness — and, whenever you feel up to it, the opportunity to let Apple know where the puck will come to rest.