Without Steve Jobs, Is Apple Still Cool?
When Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple yesterday, did your iPhone or iPad morph into an inoperable hunk of metal?
Jobs' departure has led to much discussion about the consequences for Apple and its legendary catalog of products, provoking questions about its ability to continue to innovate without its founder and visionary in charge. But put aside the fate of the hardware or the software, which will likely remain top-notch given the roster of talent Apple has assembled. The real challenge confronting the company is maintaining what seems as much a core strength as its design work and execution: the aura of cool that hovers over all of its products; the feeling that owning and using them admits the buyer to a circle of clued-in fellow travelers, escapees from the very square and quotidian Planet Microsoft, refugees from the office-drudgery of the Blackberry.
What may well change with Jobs no longer at the helm is the feeling that consumers associate with owning Apple products -- possessing a piece of the cutting edge, that sense of sleek, streamlined cool.
Surely, not many people have gone out to buy an Apple product solely due to the fact that Jobs has been in charge. But plenty of people have bought into the knowledge that they are securing a piece of coolness, and that Steve Jobs is the magician-cum-genius who has made it so. Now that Jobs has resigned, can that feeling of coolness live on?
THE END OF AN ERA OF COOL?
The analysts and columnists offering assurances that Apple will be fine without Jobs sound like they are reaching. The very fact that his resignation has sparked such an outpouring on Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet underscores the real problem for Apple: People know that he's gone, and they sense that something might be different now.
During an extraordinary run over the past decade, Apple has managed to be something of a uniting force across America. If there is one thing Brooklyn hipsters and Peoria housewives might agree on, it is that Apple products are cool. People who know almost nothing about technical specs or processor speeds or the relative merits of mobile operating systems have taken a measure of confidence in one putative technology fact: Apple products are objects of desire, a slice of the future available in the here and now.
Whatever game-changing gizmo Jobs was selling at any given moment was the thing that seemingly everyone was waiting for a chance to buy. His words have caused normally-sane people to sleep on the concrete outside of strip malls in order to guarantee themselves early access to his gadgets.
But now that Jobs' keynote speeches have presumably ended and his black mock turtlenecks have been folded up and placed in a drawer somewhere, are we about to witness the slide of Apple products from veritable objects of cult fascination to the realm of excellent devices in an industry overflowing with them?
'THIS IS WHEN APPLE KNEW HOW TO BUILD A COMPUTER'
We have entered the era of post-Steve Jobs Apple products. We divide television shows into eras based on the personnel working on the show (think the Larry David episodes of Seinfeld versus the post-Larry David episodes of Seinfeld), and we do the same with sports teams (the Phil Jackson-led Chicago Bulls versus the next iteration). So, why not iPhones and iPads, too?
It is too early to become nostalgic for Apple's bygone Steve Jobs days, but it's on its way. People will begin to say that the Apple machine, though still cranking out identical products, has lost its soul, or its leather jacket, or whatever it was that was making its products shine in the eyes of its consumers, all because Steve Jobs has left his CEO perch.
In other words, Apple is about to feel what it is like for everyone else to produce smartphones and tablets in an iPhone and iPad world: Without Steve Jobs, Apple is effectively competing against a previous incarnation of itself.
Some say this is nonsense, a sentiment captured beautifully through two quotes in an AP story by April Metz and Jordan Robertson.
Jeff Gamet, managing editor of Apple-focused news site The Mac Observer, said Jobs' departure has more sentimental than practical significance. He said he has been telegraphing the change for several years.
"All Apple really has done is made official what they've been doing administratively for a while now, which is Tim runs the show and Steve gets to do his part to make sure the products come out to meet the Apple standard," he said.
But Trip Chowdhry, an analyst with Global Equities Research, said Jobs' maniacal attention to detail is what has set Apple apart. He said Apple's product pipeline might be secure for another few years, but he predicted that the company will eventually struggle to come up with market-changing ideas.
"Apple is Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs is Apple, and Steve Jobs is innovation," Chowdhry said. "You can teach people how to be operationally efficient, you can hire consultants to tell you how to do that, but God creates innovation. ... Apple without Steve Jobs is nothing."
IS APPLE NOTHING WITHOUT STEVE JOBS?
There is a perhaps apocryphal story about Steve Jobs' irreplaceability that Chowdrhy related to me in a phone interview. At a March 2011 dinner attended by Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt and other tech luminaries, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison allegedly told the president that “everyone here is replaceable -- except” Steve Jobs.
There are two reasons why this might be true and not just the famously outrageous Ellison running his mouth for attention.
First, the Apple pipeline -- one that consumers only read about and get hints of -- is notoriously micromanaged by the ruthless perfectionism of Steve Jobs. There is another tale going around right now, of a Google exec who was urgently called by Jobs on a Sunday afternoon to discuss a major problem with the Google iPhone app. Panicked, the exec asked Jobs what was wrong. The problem in question? The color gradient on the third ‘O’ in the app icon was just a little off where it should be.
The second reason Apple might be in trouble without Jobs is that the company just lost its best and most valuable salesman. Forget John Hodgman as a PC, forget the shadow people dancing to cloying indie music, forget all the things there are apps for: The ability of Steve Jobs to work the globe into a frenzy in his Apple Keynote speeches was without precedent. When Jobs turned the corner in his presentations to his famous “One Last Thing” announcements, it was like we were all cats and he was waving around an orange feather at the end of a stick up above our collective noses. I didn’t buy half the things he was selling -- mostly due to a persistent financial condition my accountant calls "being a writer" -- but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t at least filled with a primitive desire to go play with the new shiny toy being projected large above Jobs’ eggish head.
END OF THE COOL
Chowdhry told me that, under Jobs’ supervision as CEO, the Apple product line “has been well-crafted for the next 3 years, but what happens after that is anyone’s guess.”
“The brand will dilute if the products are not good,” he said. “There have been so many people that have been dubbed the next Steve Jobs, but they are not one-tenth of his mental aptitude. Think of how many things he has created. This person knows how to make products.”
He also knows how to make them fly off shelves.
There are many corporations out there that make incredible tech products that don’t sell nearly as well as their iAlternatives, and don’t have any of the cultural cachet of their Apple counterparts. This is partly because Jobs basically invented the markets for them -- I'm talking MP3 players, everyday smartphones and tablets -- and also because they lack the Jobs-infused kevorka propelling them into the consumer space.
But the questions about innovation, execution, discipline: These are the sorts of questions that could be posed about any leadership transition at any successful mega-corporation. The biggest challenge for Apple is the one whose answer is difficult precisely because it is hard to define: How do you replace someone whose talents seemed to go beyond design and imagination to almost-ethereal, zeitgeist-y qualities? How do you hand over responsibility for maintaining an aura?
For Apple, as for any company, that's a high bar, one it will likely fail to reach. Apple's coolest days are probably behind it.