Apple and Steve Jobs: How important was he?
Steve Jobs’ last words, famously, were “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”
He might have been speaking about the immediate future of Apple.
In the few months since his death, the most important businessperson in the world suddenly looks less so. While Jobs’ death triggered an onslaught of agonized predictions about the prospects for Apple, at least this seem they could seem overblown. To say the least.
After all, its stock price is soaring. The “New iPad” has provoked the same frenzied lines and consumer demand we’ve come to expect. (True, this is a product that had Jobsian fingerprints all over it.) The rumors about a breakthrough television are flying. And the company is sitting on a billion dollars in cash that has analysts falling over themselves to recommend how best to deploy it.
So was the irreplaceable stature of the legendary CEO exaggerated? I don’t think so. Even if it appears that Apple didn’t skip a beat, it would be a rush to judgment to conclude that everything will continue to be copasetic in Cupertino. Here are the worms in the Apple that are likely to present themselves:
1. Post-Dictator Tribalism: For all his genius, Jobs ran the company with an oligarch’s heavy hand. Since his death, the emotionalism of the situation has kept everyone together. But as the mourning dissipates, the natural fractiousness of organizations will eventually appear – and it’s unlikely that Tim Cook will be able to keep his band of talented, strong-willed individuals from internal strife. Jobs talked about leaving a powerful culture behind him, but cultures are composed of complex, shifting valences. Parents tell the kids not to fight after they die, too.
2. The Public Can’t Love You Forever: In Wall Street, they say trees don’t grow to the sky. Neither does loyalty. Apple’s remarkable run will eventually be threatened by a perfect storm of the working conditions at Foxconn and its other factories, and its zealously guarded walled garden that’s beautiful but imprisoning for users. (And punishing for content providers.)
There are other huge issues. The need for Apple TV to succeed; even a slight hiccup will bring back the “There’s no real Apple without Steve” naysayers. And in the future, the need for paradigm innovation like the iPod, iPhone and iPad – as opposed to incremental innovation, which is all we’ve seen thus far. (Admittedly, a short window.)
So my answer to the question about Steve Jobs’ criticality is exactly the same as the answer the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai gave when asked about his reaction to the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.”