Steve Jobs’ latest medical leave of absence has once again triggered speculation on Apple’s ability to survive without Jobs’ hand firmly on the helm. Media pundits are harking back to the long slow decline of Apple since Jobs was ousted in the mid ’80’s, and wondering if it is likely to happen again if for whatever reason Jobs is unable to return to work. They seem to believe that Apple’s success since Jobs’ return in 1997 is solely due to Jobs’ influence and business acumen. Are they right? Is Jobs’ personality the only thing that is keeping Apple going?
What many of these speculators seem to be forgetting is that Apple in the ’80’s has very little in common with Apple of today. And Steve Jobs is not the same man who was kicked out of his own company 25 years ago. It really helps to remember history before trying to draw conclusions from it.
In 1985, Steve Jobs was a brash young businessman with a string of wild successes at his back. As the management and marketing mind behind Apple Computer, he had created the microcomputer market and his company was currently dominating that market. But the complexities of running a successful corporation were proving to be too much for Jobs. Apple was divided internally as different projects vied for resources. Jobs had brought John Sculley in as the President and CEO the previous year to provide experience in managing a large and diverse corporation. In 1985 Sculley and the board had identified Jobs as the most disruptive force within Apple and ousted him.
The fact is that neither Sculley nor Jobs were the proper leadership for Apple in the 1980’s. Jobs was too much of a hothead, and Sculley had never been in a position of leading a company that needed to actually compete. Sculley had learned a very defensive style of management, of avoiding risks, sitting on existing market dominance, and watching the money roll in. Under Sculley, innovation was effectively squelched as too risky. Research continued to happen, but very little of that research appeared in the market unless it was in reaction to market pressure. Instead of leading the market, Apple was placed in a position of playing catch up.
As for Jobs, Launching NeXT and having it fail in the marketplace was an incredibly valuable learning experience for Jobs. It taught him that being too far ahead of the market was just as deadly as being too far behind, how to build a team, and how to get others to buy into his vision. So the Jobs that came back to Apple was a very different man than the one who left.
Apple today competes in a variety of consumer lines. In some areas they dominate, in others they trail, but the hallmark of the Apple 2011 is that the company doesn’t react to market forces. Apple goes its own way, leading the market instead of reacting to their competition. This is one of the things that differentiates Apple from the rest of the industry and has allowed Apple to have successive record-breaking quarters in the middle of an economic depression that has taken serious toll upon their competition. While Apple may not always have controlling market-share, they have a mind-share vastly out of proportion to their sales. And as long as the rest of the market defines their strategies as “how will we respond to what Apple does?”, they aren’t likely to lose that mental dominance any time soon.
Jobs has also changed over the last 13 years. While some still see Jobs as a superstar of the industry, Steve knows that his success depends on the quality of the team supporting him, and he has put together one of the best teams around. Steve still appears to be the head visionary for Apple, but he has put together a disciplined team that is prepared to follow his guidance until a new visionary for Apple appears.
The real question is if Steve Jobs died tomorrow, would Apple be able to find someone to take over his place creating the company’s vision in the three or so years before they run out of Jobs-directed projects currently in work. Right now it appears that Tim Cook has been well positioned in the wings to assume this position. It remains to be seen if Cook has a vision of his own for Apple, or if he has just been well coached in Steve’s view of the company.
Can someone else knock Apple off the pedestal? Certainly. Apple doesn’t have a lock on innovative technology. Someone else could always develop something that radically changes the path of the industry. But they won’t do that by chasing Apple. For now, Apple has a good crew and a good course. Even if they lose the captain, it doesn’t look like they’re going to sink any time soon.