He may still be chairman of the board, but in the eyes of the world Steve Jobs has ceased to be the heart of Apple.
The succession plan, one of the most closely guarded secrets this side of D-Day, is running. As it has been running for at least two years; the date of Jobs's departure may not have been known, but that it was approaching most certainly was.
These past couple of years have been the strongest test yet of Jobs's famous reality distortion field, his ability to convince everyone he works with that what he says is either true or can — must — be made so. But some realities are not to be denied.
Apple without Jobs is now one of them. Like any empire without its Caesar, what the next Apple will be, what it does and how it does it, depends on which of the factions within gains control.
For there are many Apples. One is that of new chief executive Tim Cook, who is as much responsible for Apple's success as Jobs was. He turned the business of actually making the goods into an imperial machine, controlling suppliers and manufacturers with unmatched ruthlessness. Making close to 100-percent margins on consumer electronics in an austere, hyper-competitive market is as miraculous as anything ever demonstrated in a keynote.
Then there's the Apple normal people know and write about, a company capable of producing an endless stream of new products with pitch-perfect cadence. It is a marketing powerhouse — for how else do you account for Apple's coronation as king of all things technology, when all it makes is a mobile phone now on its fourth incarnation, a mutant mobile phone too big to put in a pocket, and a few laptops? Put that way — a valid analysis that seems heretical — Apple's success is even more miraculous, more reality defying, than if it had been more like Sony with its huge range of products.
And there's the innovatory Apple, which lives well beneath the radar. With the exception of the ghostly presence of Jonathan Ive, this is an invisible and unknown force. The products and services appear, companies are swallowed up, and the star players leave. The big decisions are no longer what chip to use, what new hardware features are too cool not to have, but what deals can be done with media companies, what marketing advantage can be gained by rounding up which supplier.
Success through control
The signs are strong that Tim Cook's Viking armies will prevail, and without a struggle. It's where the money comes from, and where any attack is to be resisted by any means necessary. Apple of late has become self-righteously litigious, a terrible temptation for any company with fewer ideas and far more money than once it had, but nearly irresistible for one that's learned that success comes through control. If you can't out-think the competition, then it can be controlled through lawsuits — and if you lose a few, it doesn't matter. The damage has been done. And Apple of late has been run by Cook.
Apple of late has become self-righteously litigious, a terrible temptation for any company with fewer ideas and far more money than once it had.
Looking beyond the iPhone and the iPad, both of which can only be refreshed so far, there is only uncertainty. Apple in the cloud is Apple unproven. Apple as innovator without Jobs is Apple unknown. Apple in a market where everyone else can do what it does, but can do it cheaper, is unApple.
Apple will play to what strengths it has, and that looks like a marketing-led, litigiously-active, cash-rich giant determined to protect what it has over building out what comes next.
For with Jobs, there was always a 'next', even if we didn't know what it was going to be. As one part of the company's history was maturing, Steve Jobs would always be there on stage, unveiling just one more thing: the Mac, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.
That won't happen again. Apple's future depends on the new next, and the longer we have to wait to see what happens, the less likely it will happen at all.
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