The announcement Wednesday evening that Steve Jobs would be stepping down as CEO of Apple is certain to define an era in the company's history, namely: Steve/After Steve. It is not the first time Jobs has left the company -- he exited in 1985 before returning in 1997, and has been on medical leave since January of this year -- but given Jobs' ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer, this latest move has a certain finality to it.
For a company that has, in many ways, come to define the best of American ingenuity in the 21st century, the departure of its figurehead from day-to-day operations is not merely a line in the sand for the country's innovation economy, but a symbolic abdication of the throne that brings with it some amount of existential despair. Apple employees and iPad owners alike are apt to be asking themselves, "Can Apple survive without Steve Jobs?"
From all outside accounts, the answer to this question appears to be yes. Though Jobs has been an outsized force at the company, he has spent the last decade fostering what some analysts have dubbed "a Steve-infused culture" at Apple, one that prizes rigor, discretion, innovation and the relentless pursuit of better product -- all in the name of serving the consumer.
It is a way of thinking that permeates all levels of the company -- from engineering to development to marketing -- and is so ingrained as to be second nature to Apple employees. For those questioning what will happen now that Jobs is no longer the face of Apple, analysts contend they need not worry -- the company has been created in his image.
According to James Allworth and Max Wessel, who study Apple as fellows at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School, Jobs is an omnipresent force in the halls of Apple.
"The way he thinks about problems, the perfectionism, the attention to detail -- that trickles down," Allworth said. "Apple has an amazing group of people. They come in and they're thinking about new stuff, and if they come up against a decision, the question that always pops up is, 'What Would Steve Do?'"
Allworth credits Jobs with designing small product teams that are "oriented around projects, with a combination of engineers and marketers. They resemble startups." Such dynamics ensure that the teams keep "an eye towards design and customers," he said.
And if Jobs has created a corporate legacy -- some version of the 10 Commandments for his acolytes to follow -- Allworth counted among its pillars that employees are "always coming at a product thinking of the end user. A lot of companies are driven by profit. Jobs asked, 'What are the best products that we can make?'"
By relentlessly "demanding and wanting something better," Wessel said, "it has allowed [Apple] to create products that might cannibalize their old products -- simply because it is better for the user."
"That standard will serve Apple well," Allworth said. "It feels like they will be able to do this without him."
Further supporting a post-Jobs Apple, newly installed CEO Tim Cook -- an operations guru who, by all accounts, is capable of doing a highly adequate, if not stellar, job -- has the advantage of an Apple pipeline stuffed with product, including the upcoming iPhone 5 and iPad 3. With these products already in late-stage development, it will be some time before the American consumer can truly judge Cook's ability to create a game-changing product. And with the company's not-insignificant cash reserves of up to $80 billion, Cook will have some room for error.
"I can't imagine a better scenario," said Mike Mannor, an assistant professor of strategy at the University of Notre Dame, who believes that Jobs' health -- and Apple's unwillingness to release information about it -- created a cloud of uncertainty that did not serve the company well. With Jobs' departure, he said, Apple's market share may be considerably strengthened.
"Although Apple has performed well in the market, its financial performance has been even more stellar," Mannor said. "To some degree, there's been a dampening of the market reaction to Apple's performance, and I would argue that's due to a ripple effect from [the] uncertainty."
Now, with Jobs' departure, Mannor believes, "In the short term, there will be the mourning of a leader -- some uncertainty and a potentially negative effect on stock. But in the long term, things will net positive."
John Challenger, CEO of executive search firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said that uncertainty around Jobs' health likely fostered a better developed succession plan. "Most CEOs think they're going to live forever," Challenger said, "so the fact that Jobs has had pancreatic cancer has put a focus and microscope on building a strong culture and strong future for the company [without him]."
If Jobs -- passionate and larger than life, combative and forceful by nature -- has left giant shoes to fill, Allworth and Wessel deemed Cook an, "excellent" replacement for him, precisely because he will not override Jobs' reputation. "I don’t think Cook will put his own mark on the company DNA," Wessel said.
On a certain level, the worship of Jobs and the refrain of "What Would Steve Do?" have undeniably cultish undertones -- but this may be mitigated in large part because Jobs has created a constant cycle of product launch and expiration, where even beloved products like the iPhone don't last forever.
For the newly Jobs-less Apple flock, the most pressing question, of course, remains whether the team can exist inside the Mind of Steve while at the same time remembering that this is, after all, the company that first encouraged people to "Think Different."
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