There really is no question of succession at Apple, if Steve Jobs doesn’t come back. It’ll be Tim Cook in charge.
The overarching issue though is not whether Apple can continue to succeed, with the insanely inspired one. It’s who can set a standard for continuous disruption and re-invention of a now largely digital economy, in the same grand manner?
This is an economy in unfathomable disarray. To lose Jobs in the middle of it and perhaps permanently will add both psychic and practical depression.
Jobs doesn’t just make Apple better. It makes each industry he touches better. Sure, he appropriated the idea of the “graphical user interface” from Xerox. But he ran with it and made it work smoothly for anyone who wanted to figure out computing on their own. And Microsoft has spent a quarter-century now trying to copy and catch up, with Windows. Hasn’t done it. But just imagine what kind of personal computer you would be working with today, otherwise. Bill Gates, like Jobs, used someone else’s innovation as the launchpad for how “industry standard” computers would work. That was the command-line interface of the Quick and Dirty Operating System that would be renamed the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS).
In music and digital file players, he came up with a design so simple and yet so advanced – the click wheel – that he could organize an entire market. And fend off dozens of “iPod killers,’’ without suffering a serious wound.
Same with the iPhone. The multitouch screen and the App Store were brilliantly executed. Simple, yet elaborate and rich. Even geniuses Sergei Brin and Larry Page at Google are trying to copy and catch up. And former Apple denizens are trying to out-innovate their former boss, with the WebOS and Pre phone, to resuscitate Palm.
He doesn’t always succeed. Apple TV has gone nowhere. The Lisa was a dud. He’s never really gotten traction with corporate IT departments.
But who will challenge the best minds in this economy, if Jobs goes away and keeps finding his condition is more complicated than he thought?
Not Michael Dell, a process innovator and a product imitator. Not Mark Hurd and crew at HP, who prefer to go for a yard or two, a first down and a cloud of dust. But not revolution. Not whomever is the latest chieftain at Motorola or other old-type cellphone manufacturer. Not a maker of chips.
Elsewhere, the recent record of innovation is not so inspiring. If you go back to the list of 25 top business innovators that Business Week put together on its 75th anniversary in 2004, the first face you see is that of Lewis Rainieri. He’s he fellow who figured out how to pool thousands of different loans together and create new financial products from them. He may have understood what he was doing in creating mortgage-backed securities --- but look at where his legions of followers got us.
Someone’s going to have to come off the bench somewhere and figure out how to shake up not just technology, but a technology-driven economy.
Right now, who’s ready to step up to the plate – again and again – at any other company than Apple is not known.