Pondering Apple in a post-Steve Jobs world...again

Summary:With Apple's transition plan finally executed, what comes next for the world's most envied technology company?

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Three years ago I wrote the precursor to this article, which was entitled "Pondering Apple in a post-Jobs world."

At the time when I wrote it, I was fairly certain that Apple was going to enter a management crisis if for some reason Steve Jobs had to abdicate his position as Chairman and CEO, due to declining health or other extenuating circumstances.

I was also fairly sure that this was going to happen shortly after I wrote the article.

I was wrong, of course. Steve Jobs did have serious health issues, but he thankfully recovered.

Unfortunately, this time, it looks like Steve Jobs has decided that his tenure is over at Apple. Given the man's substantial fortune and his significant achievements, this is fairly easy to understand.

His life and his family clearly came first when considering his own personal priorities. I respect that choice a great deal.

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I do not wish to eulogize a human being while they are still alive. Frankly, I am observing my colleagues and other industry peers engage in this sort of eulogizing activity and I'm not sure what to think of it.

When that day comes, I'll have a lot to say about Steve Jobs as human being, and it will be personal and it will be heartfelt, warts and all.

For the time being, as my friend and colleague David Gewirtz has said better than I have, Thank you, Steve. For all you've done, for all of us. And when I say I mean that with absolute sincerity, I really do.

Now that being said, I do feel there is a lot to think about with a new man at the helm of Apple, and what it means for the future of the company.

The transition management issue appears to have been dealt with, at least on the surface. Tim Cook is now the CEO, with Jobs at least tentatively still filling the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors.

With Steve Jobs on the Board as Chairman, it is clear that Apple will almost certainly stay on the current course that has been set for the company. The question remains, however, when does Tim Cook start making independent decisions? When does he start fully influencing the design of products, or will this be an activity he is even interested in engaging in?

My Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan feels that Tim Cook may not fully assert himself for five years. I think that is probably not realistic, considering that Jobs' Chairmanship is likely to be extremely brief, for lack of a more tactful or tasteful way of saying it.

I believe that in less than a year the weight of Jobs' personal involvement with the company is likely to be lifted, and Cook will have to step up to the plate fairly quickly, if not on product design issues but on more practical matters concerning the company's operations.

Today Tim Cook went on record with his employees in an internal company broadcast email and said the following:

I want you to be confident that Apple is not going to change. I cherish and celebrate Apple's unique principles and values. Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that—it is in our DNA. We are going to continue to make the best products in the world that delight our customers and make our employees incredibly proud of what they do.

So for at least for the near-term, there is a plan, and that plan is Jobs' plan. Whether it is one year, two years, three years or five years there is going to be continuity. That continuity is almost certainly going to be in the form of a product pipeline which Jobs had a direct hand in influencing.

How many products and which products those are and how many years worth of output is involved is uncertain and is only known to a limited number of people within Apple.

Still, while the management message for now is to calm the waters, and that change is not going to occur, I believe it is unrealistic to assume that some form of change will not happen once Tim Cook fully asserts his own unique management style and applies his unique set of skills to the task.

One only has to take in consideration how Tim Cook is different than Steve Jobs and the dynamic that existed between Jobs and is own management team. We don't know what kind of dynamic Cook is going to inject into Apple, but we all know that Jobs was a control freak and that he was a micro-manager to the extreme, leaving his personal mark on every single product at the company.

This is not an insult to or a denigration of Steve Jobs, this is simply a statement of fact. The machinery worked as well as it did because Jobs was very much Apple and Apple was Jobs. He had a loyal cadre of team leads, of which Cook was one of about a dozen key people, and was his most important trusted advisor.

It's probably worth adding a bit about how the last major iconic tech CEO exited his firm and what the differences are, and why the impacts to both of these companies are also different. Bill Gates also left the company he founded a few years ago, but he had already groomed Steve Ballmer for the job for many years prior to setting off on his philanthropic endeavors.

Certainly one could say that Cook has also been groomed, but how recently and to what extent can you fully transfer genius or philosophy to a successor, when micromanagement is the mode of operation?

Neither Gates nor Ballmer were or are micromanagers. If anything, they are the exact opposite.

The current mode of operation at Microsoft, despite the various organizational changes that have occurred in the last five years was for Gates and still is still for Ballmer to leave a great deal of autonomy to their division leads.

This is why it is possible for the company to chug along normally and release strong enterprise products like Windows Server on a very organized schedule but also to release major consumer flops like Windows Vista or the Kin.

Like his predecessor, Ballmer isn't approving every single product that comes out of the business units and he isn't examining them with a fine tooth comb like Steve Jobs did at Apple.

Hands-Off, versus Micromanagement. And while both Ballmer and Steve Jobs are both excellent salesmen and highly-skilled businesspeople, they are very, very different in their sales approach.

Autonomy for business unit leads is good because it means that not everything is dependent on the head. For a company as large as Microsoft with as many products for the consumer and the enterprise that they need to produce, this is a necessary evil.

You could never run Microsoft like Steve Jobs ran Apple. It wouldn't work, just due to the difference in number of employees dedicated to product development alone.

Micromanagement a la Steve Jobs can be effective if you are trying to run a tight, close-knit team. And for that reason, it could be said that Microsoft is strong for the same reasons Apple is weak, and vice-versa. While they frequently try to achieve the same goals, they are the ying and the yang of the tech industry.

Cook's function within Jobs' tightly-knit pit crew -- which was a NASCAR or Formula 1 racing team compared to Gates' and Ballmer's mechanized infantry divisions -- besides being his closest confidante was the lead supply chain strategist.

Cook ensured that everything ran on schedule, that pricing and component availability and manufacturing issues with subcontractors and suppliers were all ironed out, and he was the key guy who made the deals with these partners to ensure success and execution.

He was project manager numero uno when it came to Apple from an operational standpoint. And he is also someone who is supposed to be a genuinely nice guy, which in and of itself is an extreme counterpoint to Jobs, if you go by any number of personal accounts over the last 30 years about how the man worked with other people.

So what we leave in place under the new regime is a quiet, soft spoken strategist, efficiency expert and organizational genius at the top, with talented engineers underneath.

Does Tim give them a greater level of autonomy or does he micromanage in Jobsian form? Does he focus on keeping the machinery running or does he delve into product design details? My guess that in both case, is that it will be more of the former rather than the latter.

While there certainly be products that will come out of Apple for some time that have much of Steve Jobs' DNA in it, there are some things which have his fingerprints that may not continue in the Tim Cook era once Jobs is truly and fully unable to influence the company.

Two key things come to mind here. One is the litigiousness and animosity that is coming out of Apple and is being directed towards its competitors. The other is Apple's plans for building a huge, futuristic, extremely expensive campus in Cupertino.

I cannot claim to have any clairvoyant powers or have done a full psychological profile of Tim Cook. But the lawsuits have always seemed to me to be something of a personal nature that seemed entirely Jobs-driven.

One only has to listen to and watch Jobs' presentation during the iPad 2 launch to feel the seething anger and contempt he had for his "copycat" competitors.

I just don't see Tim Cook driving those lawsuits after Jobs really is gone. At best, it is a distraction and a zero-sum game, particularly if the companies being sued can and will counter-sue for equally damaging patent violations as they acquire patent portfolios of their own, as Google has now done with acquiring Motorola and with other large portfolios outstanding waiting to be purchased or licensed by other interested parties.

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The mothership campus? Don't tell me that this is something a practical, efficiency-oriented, profits and operationally-oriented guy like Tim Cook or his Board of Directors is going to want to build when Steve Jobs is really gone, when something far less expensive and ridiculous could serve the same exact purpose.

I mean, the proposed design is almost Albert Speer-esque in its level of brazenly impossible nuttiness and outrageousness. Did I just go Godwin? Eh, screw it. It's true.

All of these post-Jobsian outcomes have much to do with whether one believes that Tim Cook is a Harry Truman/Roy Disney or an Eisenhower/Michael Eisner.

Does he want to try to preserve the legacy of his predecessor, muting his own identity for as long as possible and keep the company running on pure inertia, or does he want to be a change agent and leave his own mark?

Some of the things I said about Apple's business prospects and potential towards the end of that original 2008 piece do sound a bit dated considering the wild success the company has had since with the iPhone and iPad, although I will temporarily refrain from speculating about any potential enterprise business that the company might possibly pursue in the future, considering Cook's IBMer and Compaq DNA.

It is probably also worth mentioning that once Jobs is really gone, will the pit crew stay the same? For now, we have Jobs' hand picked folks still within the management structure.

Will they still have the same allegiance to Tim Cook? Any departures from this group, particularly Scott Forstall, Jonathan Ive or Bob Mansfield or even any of their key lieutenants will seriously alter the dynamics of the company.

What do you think will happen with Tim Cook in charge of Apple? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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Topics: Apple, CXO, Enterprise Software, IT Employment, Legal, Microsoft

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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