Apple After Steve

Peter Lewis / August 24th, 2011

Everybody has heard the news by now: Steve Jobs resigned because he “could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO.”

In his letter of resignation to the Apple Board of Directors and the Apple Community, Jobs wrote: “I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.

My first immediate reaction is sorrow that he’s stepping down. I presume that his decision is health related, and wish him and his family well.

My second reaction, to paraphrase Monty Python, is that he ain’t dead yet. His brief and eloquent resignation letter says he plans to hang around a while.

Will Steve Jobs die? Of course. Silly question, as he would be the first to say. (Actually, “stupid f&*$#$g question” is more likely how he’d say it.)

In his graduation speech to Stanford’s Class of 2005, Jobs said: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

I suspect he might see stepping down as CEO in the same Schumpeterian way. He and Steve Wozniak started Apple in a garage and it’s now the most valuable company on the whole f&*$#$g planet. Apple sets the agenda for the global technology industry. Jobs himself is by consensus the most important business executive alive today. Earlier this year he effectively decreed that the Personal Computer era was over, and last week the world’s No. 1 PC company, Hewlett-Packard, effectively said, “You’re right again, Steve. We’re toast. You kicked our butt. We give up.”

It would be hard to conceive of a better time to say “Mission Accomplished” and hand the keys to the next generation.

I haven’t checked the after-hours ticker but I assume AAPL is getting cored. That’s silly, too, for anyone with a view that goes beyond a day or two.

There’s always lots of new stuff in the pipeline at Apple, stuff that takes months and years to develop, and Tim Cook already has been running things on a day-to-day basis for some time. Will Cook be as good a CEO as Jobs has been? No one knows. Can he be even better? Again, no one knows.

Could he be worse? Hey, it’s not like Tim Cook is the second coming of Gil Amelio. I remember sitting in the front row at a Macworld conference in the mid-1990s, as a Jobs-less Apple appeared to be in a death spiral, as then-CEO Amelio gave a rambling keynote address while absent-mindedly beginning to undress himself on stage. Apple PR folks were apoplectic. It’s hard to imagine Tim Cook melting down in a similar way.

One thing we do know is that Jobs’s DNA already inculcates the culture at Apple. That may change a few years out, but … that’s a few years out. The fact that Jobs is no longer CEO of Apple is not suddenly going to make HP or Microsoft or Dell any smarter. The fact that Tim Cook is now running things is not suddenly going to invigorate any of Apple’s competitors to execute their strategies any better.

Another thing we know is that Apple is probably going to introduce a fifth-generation iPhone that will run on all carriers, including new carriers in China, the world’s largest untapped market for smartphones. That fact that Steve Jobs is no longer at the helm will not cause millions of Chinese, or Americans for that matter, to slap their foreheads with an epiphany that Android, Windows Mobile, and WebOS are suddenly better choices for mobile platforms.

Notice also the not-so-subtle jab at the media in Jobs’s letter of resignation: “I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan.” There is in fact a succession plan at Apple and the Board just approved it.

I suspect that Tim Cook didn’t open his first conversation with the Board of Directors by saying, “Okay, boys, now that I’m running the show we’re going to reinvent this company from top to bottom. I’ve been itching to go completely open and dump this whole ‘Apple ecosystem’ strategy.”

At the same time, I can’t think of any company that is as closely identified with its CEO as Apple was under Steve Jobs. Apple without Steve Jobs (or, to be accurate, Apple with Steve Jobs in the Sinatra-esque role of Chairman of the Board) will not be perceived as the same company with Jobs on the sideline. Jobs is a genius. The genius is (sort of) gone. Therefore, some of Apple’s genius is gone, too, until proven otherwise.

In that commencement address at Stanford six years ago, a healthier-looking Jobs gave a speech that was very much like the Apple products for which he is known: Elegantly crafted, attentive to detail, rich in content, but no unnecessary words or buttons. He was talking to a fresh crop of Stanford graduates, but his message almost certainly applies to Tim Cook, Phil Schiller and all the other top Apple executives who are now at the helm.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma,” Jobs said, “which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Jobs also said this: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

So, Steve woke up one morning recently and decided he needed to change something besides the world. Namaste, dude.

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A version of this post appears in Fiscal Times.

Peter Lewis

Peter Lewis has covered the tech industry since 1982 as a Senior Writer at The New York Times (where he personally registered the nytimes.com domain), Senior Editor at Fortune magazine, and professor of digital journalism at Stanford University. He is a veteran of two startups. One was named "Cool Company" of the year by Fortune, and folded six weeks later.
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