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Love Him or Hate Him
It is impossible to deny that Steve Jobs has not just had a massive impact in computing, animated film, and consumer electronics, but that his contributions in these areas has changed the way a growing number of people live and work. Even people who aren't fans, myself included, admit that he combines technological design and business prowess at a level as yet unseen elsewhere. Despite the fact that Jobs hasn't even left entirely, giving up the day-to-day work of a CEO but taking up the Chairman's seat on the Board, there have been varying degrees of doom predicted about this move and Jobs' health issues. But Apple isn't a one man show: quite the contrary actually; they employ almost fifty thousand people; they for a time during the debt ceiling showdown had more liquid capital than the United States government and for a brief time they outstripped Exxon Mobile as the world's largest company by market value.
Could Apple have done this without Jobs? No. Can they now keep growing and developing deeply appealing products that move the goal posts of the computing and consumer electronics field without Jobs as CEO? Yes.
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There are three theories one can espouse as to the correlation between Jobs' management and Apple's success:
- Apple has great engineers, marketers, the COO who covered for Jobs and is now CEO is a supply chain genius, and Jobs might have been a genius in the iMac days but now he just gives swanky press conferences. Arguably Apple is so big that they are getting Microsoftish and more interested in patent lawsuits than making drool worthy technology. His resignation will have little or no impact.
- Steve Jobs is personally responsible for the company's phenomenal success through his design and motivational brilliance, and continues to drive the company and it's employees forward. They need him on an ongoing basis. The impact of his resignation will be adverse and dramatic.
- Steve Jobs is personally responsible for Apple's success because of his design, marketing and management brilliance. He didn't build and sell great products: Apple did. What Jobs did was what every CEO is supposed to: build not products, but a company. The people he has gathered and culture he instilled at Apple are infused with Jobs DNA, and their will be little or no impact from his resignation.
That leaves only one scenario where Apple is in big trouble due to the resignation. One has to accept that Jobs was brilliant enough to make these amazing products and services and get almost fifty thousand people to buy into his vision deeply enough to manufacture, sell, and deliver those products in a way that has earned Apple not just throngs of customers and users, but outright fans and advocates. Fair enough, that is actually the same belief that the third scenario starts out with. The problem is that the second scenario goes on to assume that Jobs was brilliant enough to lead the company to such success while somehow failing to have this leave a lasting impression on the very organization he led and its members.
Unless there is something unusual about the Cupertino water supply likely to cause massive incidents of collective amnesia, it's too big a stretch.
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He Isn't Even Really Leaving
And he wasn't really there full time of late. The fact of the matter is that Jobs is still able to play a HUGE role as Apple's Chairman of the Board, and that Tim Cook, the new CEO, has already been the acting CEO on two occasions during medical leaves of Jobs'. Also, it is a safe bet that when Steve Jobs shows up at the Apple Campus, no one is going to tell him what he can or can't do: The change in title won't represent a dramatic change in how he contributes. It is more likely a continuation of Jobs slowly reducing his involvement in the company over time. Furthermore, even after a total cessation of activities at Apple, his impact will be ongoing, again, its in the company's DNA by now.
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So Why the Panic?
Some of it is justified. The man's accomplishments are legendary, even to those that don't particularly like him. His larger than life personality and front and center role in Apple's public and press relations, coupled with the phenomenal popularity of Apple products and their corporate success, make him a household name. In a decade where being a geek went from meaning socially inept to meaning clever and sophisticated with a passion for things not dictated by the masses, Jobs, in his de rigueur and vaguely beatnick-esque black long sleeves, was an icon of this change. He is, simply put, a celebrity, and, as a legitimate news maker of immense influence in business, technology, and culture, deservedly so. His reduced presence in these landscapes won't go unnoticed.
Some of it is understandable, but inaccurate: a corporation is by definition something abstract and hard to put a face to. If someone is going to do one slick presentation after another, to an audience that grows in number and enthusiasm over the course of a decade, it's easier and more interesting, in human terms, to think of Apple as being that person than a multi-national corporate entity of immense complexity. Mistaking the face of Apple for the whole Apple makes it easy to worry about how often the face makes it into the office.
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Screenshot Paparazzi Chase Web Browsing Geek Celebs
Given that it is easy to identify Steve Jobs as Apple, and that Steve Jobs is a celebrity, there is one final reason it becomes easy to worry that as goes Jobs goes the whole of Apple: We live in a culture of celebrity worship. The media leads the charge here, expressing the idea that as human beings, we like stories about human beings more than stories about just about anything else, and strange abstracts like politics, economics, and corporations in particular. Pick a human a lot of people already know and they don't have to do much for you to get an audience by reporting on it.
We want to think that the "having passions not dictated by the majority" part of being geeks somehow puts us above celebrity worship, which is a very mainstream practice. It would appear that we just need the right celebrity. After all, I wrote this, and here you are reading it. Steve Jobs is indeed worth watching, but it is dangerous to let his persona eclipse his actual achievement.
He didn't create the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, or iPad: He created the company that created them.
That company isn't going to implode just because he isn't there every day, and it won't even implode when he stops coming in entirely. Organizational cultures, especially those made by people widely accepted as geniuses, outlast their founders regularly. The Ford Motor Company didn't stop using the assembly line when Henry called it a day.
- Image by Coolcaesar: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Applecomputerheadquarters.jpg . Used under CC BY-SA 3.0
- Steve Jobs at Apple: A timeline, Computer World: http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9219480/Steve_Jobs_at_Apple_A_timeline?taxonomyId=12&pageNumber=1
- Jobs Quits as Apple CEO, Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904875404576528981250892702.html