Pondering Apple in a post-Jobs world

Pondering Apple in a post-Jobs world

Summary: Before all of you start sending nastygrams my way about how tasteless and premature this blog post is, let me just say upfront I agonized about whether or not it should even be written in the first place, and my industry colleagues I consulted about it told me that the topic, while uncomfortable, is fair game.Steve Jobs is still CEO of Apple, and he's still alive, and unofficially Dictator for Life.

SHARE:

Before all of you start sending nastygrams my way about how tasteless and premature this blog post is, let me just say upfront I agonized about whether or not it should even be written in the first place, and my industry colleagues I consulted about it told me that the topic, while uncomfortable, is fair game.

Steve Jobs is still CEO of Apple, and he's still alive, and unofficially Dictator for Life. But I am definitely not alone and hardly an original thinker among many who are pondering about how long he might be able to remain in an active role at the company.

steve_jobs-zd.jpg

I'm not going to theorize on whether or not Jobs' pancreatic cancer has returned, is having a prolonged recovery from his Whipple procedure, or whether Apple is hiding the real truth of the situation, as many have suggested. Rather, I think some consideration should be taken as to whether or not Apple has formed an effective transition strategy, and has adequately prepared for the worst case scenario. What does Apple look like without Jobs?

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Companies that are centered around iconic founders and which cannot form effective long-term transition and mission strategies after they depart are doomed to suffer serious consequences. Case in point -- from May of 1985 to late 1996, Jobs lived out his exile at NeXT and Pixar, only to return as Apple's savior after over a decade of being completely rudderless and on the brink of oblivion.

The industry is littered with examples of poor transition management. Microsoft itself seemed to have hit a major bump in the road in vision and mission when Bill Gates decided to spend more time on his personal projects rather than be involved in day to day matters of the company -- a road bump that it seems to still not have recovered from given the train wreck that is Windows Vista -- although it could be said that Steve Ballmer had been groomed for the position since the day the company was founded. Michael Dell had to be brought back in to turn his company around after watching its market share deteriorate after three years of stewardship under Kevin Rollins. And who could forget how Palm Computing went completely, irretrievably south after Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins made the break. While Donna still serves on the board of directors, Palm hasn't seen its glory days in a long time.

The tech industry isn't the only one to be affected by founder exodus transition mismanagement syndrome.  Harley-Davidson went through years of deterioration and shipping poor products after being purchased by AMF in 1969 when the original founders left and only rebounded when 13 employees made a concerted effort to save the company and buy it back in 1981. It could also be said after Walt died in 1966, Disney went through an extremely difficult period in its core animated film business, for as much as two decades until Eisner revitalized the company.

If Jobs were to abdicate, would Apple indeed become rudderless again? Or has he installed a church of his own followers that would continue on in the same tradition and ideology? Is there a "Book of Jobs" somewhere in a pile of Word for Mac files or PDFs that contain the ideological canon of what comprises the essence of Apple? Is enough institutional knowledge and Jobs's teachings documented and retained among the management staff? Only Steve Jobs can answer that question for sure.

Certainly, a number of the "inmates" that formed the NeXT "asylum" that reconstructed the company after the long decline during the Sculley, Spindler and Amelio years still remain, but some key folks are missing -- notably Avie Tevanian, Job's long time #2 and head of software engineering, who went off to join the board of Tellme Networks in 2006. Tim Cook, a former career IBMer, briefly filled the role of CEO when Jobs had his cancer treatment in 2004, but whether he has the institutional vision to run the company long term should Jobs have to leave Apple is a question only Jobs can answer. Only Bertrand Serlet, who succeeded Avie Tevanian as Chief of Software Engineering, and Sina Tamaddon are the two remaining legacy NeXTers serving as senior company officers. Whether either of these two they have the exact combination of talents to be CEO material of a multi-billion dollar corporation and the executors of Job's legacy is uncertain.

Leadership isn't the only thing that might have to change if Jobs leaves Apple -- or God forbid, this world. Failure to adapt to market realities and holding Jobs' principles up on a pedestal could cause the company serious problems as well. It's no secret that what is holding Apple back from finally cutting the cord from its hardware and allowing mass-licensing of OS X on generic X86 hardware is Jobs himself. Getting iPhone out to other competing carriers besides AT&T may also be possible after Jobs and his tradition of proprietary exclusiveness becomes a thing of the past. And while it pains me to say it, despite all Jobs has meant for the company in terms of its establishing market vision and external sex appeal -- his unique brand of slick hucksterism that comprises its current success formula, leaving these traditions behind may be the only way Apple will ever realize the maximum of its true potential.

Who do you feel and what principles should guide a post-Jobs Apple? Talk Back and let me know.

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

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

136 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Post Jobs Apple..

    'Apple' the brand should survive Jobs or any other visionary - as long as they Innovate and think ahead of their times. That's what you expect out of the brand Apple.
    vinodis
    • Expectations don't always lead to results

      Remember that the last time they got rid of Jobs they quit innovating and MS merely improved (not necessarily "innovated") their product and Apple almost faded out of mainstream consciousness. So yes you'd like to think they would keep innovating, but then again it's just as possible that they get greedy bastard to head up the company who worries more about the locking in customers side of Apple than the innovative side of Apple.
      Michael Kelly
      • Expectations don't always lead to results

        I also would hope that Jobs wasn't replaced by someone who would only think of lining their own pocket which seems to be the trend amongst CEO's. The only way any company can survive is to care about its product, care about its employees, and put money into new product development. One would also hope that the "build it better, faster, and cheaper" mentatlity wouldn't be in his replacements thoughts either. So far, it hasn't worked out well for a LOT of companies. Hopefully Steve Jobs will alive and kicking for quiet a while and this will all be a moot point.
        tm_2004
      • The Real Problem with Jobs' strategy

        In answer to Mike Kelly's commments, Apple has the biggest dilemma that I can remember in this industry: How does a company with so charismatic a leader continue with or without him and his policies when his ideas for creating product were indeed prophetic, but his policies for his company limiting their use were indeed self destructive, and the reason why Apple goes from peak to the next valley in business success.
        Apple I will admit has some of the most extraordinary ideas of most companies in the field! Then eventually kills them by limiting the success of the product, and limiting it by not allowing its licensing.
        I coming from the Graphic Arts field, have seen
        this over and over again since 1984, a dilemma indeed.
        jattas9
    • It takes more than that ...

      Technologically, Apple is not ahead of the curve. They are in the thick of it though. Their success comes from marketing, not innovation. They sell products that look 'sexy' and in doing so they command premium prices for them!
      M Wagner
      • That's propaganda

        Apple's success is often attributed to good
        marketing and good looks.

        That's propaganda. Repeat a falsehood often
        enough and it becomes accepted as the truth.

        Apple is so bad at m arketing that it failed for
        many years to sell superior operating systems and
        computers.

        mwagner is correct in saying that Apple does not
        create advanced technology. What Apple does
        create is a superior, powerful, simple interfaces
        that use the best available technology most of the
        time. Sophisticated solutions give users
        exceptional power to do complex things with ease.

        Using Apple products becomes a joy of soaring
        personal power. This is where Apple excels. Not in
        technology. Not in marketing. And only marginally
        in good looks.
        roger that
        • Possibly somewhere in between

          The true quotient probably lies about halfway between your take and Marc's.

          [i]Apple is so bad at marketing that it failed for many years to sell superior operating systems and computers.[/i]

          "Superior" in how many ways? In it's ultimate reach? Interoperability? Price? Don't dismiss the power of Apple's marketing, or their branding appeal to many folks in computerland. It's always been part of their unique, higher road approach.

          Keep in mind, you can dress up a Mercedes ten ways to Sunday, and in fact make it a superior all-around transportation package. But in the end, most still can't afford one so they'll invariably turn to other, less expensive alternatives - which ironically, generally serve their purposes better, in addition to residing within their budgets. Sometimes what that non-descript Minivan lacks in sexiness it just flat out bests the Porsche or Beamer in all-purpose utility.

          So you gotta ask yourself, which one do I [i]really[/i] need? [YMMV]

          [i]Using Apple products becomes a joy of soaring personal power. This is where Apple excels.[/i]

          "Personal power" in how many ways? Read previous comments above; lather, rinse and repeat.
          klumper
          • What people like you fail to realize...

            ...is that Macs are superior in terms of ease of use to the
            average user. Linux is just as stable if not more so but
            why didn't it take the market by storm? Because it takes a
            geek to get it tweaked the way Macintoshes now run with
            no necessity to download much in the way of drivers, etc.
            You wouldn't be seeing grandma and grandpa using a
            Linux box unless they were the geeky sort. Apple's
            superiority comes from turning a computer into an
            appliance rather than a gadget that only geeks can enjoy:
            Just as you don't care how your toaster makes toast so
            long as toast is the end result when you press the button;
            or how your TV works so long as you can watch those nice
            movies when you press the power and channel buttons.
            This is how Apple provides the "soaring power" mentioned
            in the post you are replying to.

            If all the user cares about is cost and is willing to sacrifice
            the ease of use and become a geek, then they shouldn't
            complain about how difficult it is to get anything done in
            Linux and Windows. The truth of the matter is that the
            majority of the world aren't geeks and these are the people
            a company needs to sell to so as to gain market share.

            After all, I can either buy a car prebuilt at the factory to my
            specifications or I can save a couple of thousand bucks
            and buy a kit car and spend the next three (or more)
            summers building it myself in my spare time, hoping that I
            didn't make a mistake and turn it into a deathtrap when all
            I need it for is to go work, the grocery store and visit
            friends and family. Not being a car enthusiast or a
            mechanical engineer by training, I'd rather take the former
            option. And that's the opinion of most of the average
            people out there.
            Macs4EaseOfUse
          • Re-read what I wrote

            To wit: "Superior" in how many ways? In it's ultimate reach? Interoperability? Price?

            As for "soaring power", there's more than one way to define that nebulous concept. When I think of "soaring power" in matters computing, I first think of redline cycles + stability. And trust me when I say, what I could turn out with very little effort would best the baddest Mac on the block. That's the [i]other side[/i] of soaring power, and another feather in the cap of the simple, nondescript and inexpensive x86 white box that can be turbocharged. ;)

            If you were to follow any of my comments in Talkbacks, you'll notice I'm not anti-Apple. The fact is, I have quite a bit of respect for Jobs & Co. But I'm also well aware of the unique limitations and "lock-in" factor that plagues the Mac world (though this now appears to be lessening somewhat, but only time will tell how far it shall go). The Mac is still out of its league in the DIY arena, as we both know. That happens to be a realm in which I excel, and target. So put 1 + 1 together to see where "superior" is there for rigmeisters like me.

            [i]The truth of the matter is that the majority of the world aren't geeks and these are the people a company needs to sell to so as to gain market share. [/i]

            Fair enough, but come on, what's taking them then? How long will it be before the Mac OS X "revolution" breaks out and sweeps the masses off their feet, and into Apple's waiting arms? And again, a "superior" alternative to WinTel domination in how many ways? In it's ultimate reach? Interoperability? Price?

            [-start back at the top to repeat-]
            klumper
          • Lock-in???

            Apple is a very good computer citizen in that they exclusively
            use de jure standards, i.e. *real* standards, where it matters,
            i.e. they don't constantly embrace and extend and invent new
            protocols and dataformats as a certain infamous company
            from Redmond do.

            If you prefer Linux then kudos to you, it's a good citizen too,
            but requires a geek to operate and maintain like the poster
            above tried to say.
            Mikael_z
          • What really Apple Shine!

            You all are losing the point. Apple's latest success the Ipod, Iphone, etc. are great innovations, not really computers, but devices that tantalize the public. Then they limit their sales to ATT and there you have it. The marketing I agree is not so innovative to overcome the limitations infused by Apple (Jobs?) And you may be right that the Apple religious may be responsible for the products and Jobs is merely the "Guru".
            jattas9
          • They're the best there is

            That's why they sell so well on merit.
            Once you've got a taste of it then you'll see the light you too.
            ;-)
            Mikael_z
          • Not really computers?

            I imagine in 10 years or so we'll all have some small device we carry around with us, and it will wirelessly connect to a larger display and keyboard. No more "traditional" PC.

            The iPhone is a good start for exactly that, since it is a "real" computer after all.
            rynning
        • Propaganda vs Marketing

          What exactly is the difference between propaganda and marketing?
          interested bystander
        • Oh Please

          Using Apple products becomes a joy of soaring
          personal power.
          12 steps for you dude.
          tech_walker
    • Things change

      The recent shocking death of Tim Russert reminds us all
      that nothing human is permanent. Should Jobs leave or
      die, I suggest that Apple is far more ready to absorb the
      loss and continue than it was even a couple of years ago.

      Jobs' replacement need not come from his current team,
      although it certainly could. Hey, maybe "Avie Tevanian,
      Job?s long time #2 and head of software engineering"
      would see enough opportunity to leave his current Board
      position and return to Apple as top dog.
      frabjous
  • RE: Pondering Apple in a post-Jobs world

    Its a question i ponder often, as Jobs' of the world are like
    Picasso's, who can replace Picasso?
    osXCanada
    • But is he really?

      [i]as Jobs' of the world are like Picasso's[/i]

      Apple is a very secretive company, who can really say who is actually comming up with the ideas and visions?

      It could be a really great team effort from a group of people, we don't know, but that would make his leaving a non-issue today.
      AllKnowingAllSeeing
      • Perhaps..

        But the issue is one of not just innovating, but the face of
        Apple. Jobs is the salesmen/face of Apple. Even if Jobs is
        not the innovator, I doubt he does it by himself, you still
        need a person to fill the "Jobs" shoes.
        cashaww
      • The problem with Steve Jobs leaving is probably more of public perception

        I'm sure most of Apple's innovation comes from teams of
        creative people. The problem is that Steve Jobs and Apple's
        success are infinitely intertwined, even if it is mostly public
        perception. Public perception is very important for Apple.
        Apple was almost destroyed by FUD in the 90s. Apple was
        producing good products and innovating in the 90s, but
        many of their innovations didn't pan out and bad publicity
        almost killed them. Steve Jobs brought focus and
        credibility back to Apple. Besides, Steve Jobs is one heck of
        a salesperson and is a huge part of Apple's image.
        MacGeek2121