When Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, many of us wondered how Apple would survive without him. In the year since then, new Apple boss Tim Cook has been constantly compared to his predecessor. Those comparisons have not always been flattering: “Jobs would never have allowed that” is something of a cliche.
Worse, that kind of statement betrays a misunderstanding of how Apple operates. Jobs’s most lasting accomplishment is preparing Apple to thrive without him.
On People and Philosophy
Over the last decade, Jobs spent a lot of time and energy assembling an executive team that could to a large degree function without him. People like Tim Cook, Jonathan Ive, Phil Schiller, and others, each bring elements to the team that Jobs himself could not.
But Jobs’s record is hardly perfect. Remember the strange case of Mark Papermaster? In 2008, the former IBM exec was brought in to head up Apple’s device hardware engineering division. That led to months of strife as IBM tried to block his appointment via lawsuit. But even after all the legal issues were resolved, Papermaster ended up serving just 18 months, leaving after the iPhone 4 antenna controversy. While many assumed his departure was the result of that brouhaha, a Wall Street Journal report suggested that it had more to do with a “broader cultural incompatibility.”
That culture can be a hard thing to fathom, especially from outside the company. But both Jobs and Cook have touted it in their public appearances.
For Jobs, it was defined by the intersection of technology and liberal arts: two seemingly disparate disciplines that, when combined, could yield a result “that makes our heart sing.” In other words, it’s not purely about the specs of a device, but about what products can do to (in another of his favourite phrases) “surprise and delight” us.
Jobs was notorious for his pickiness about design and materials, which to him helped define Apple products. It’s no surprise that he brought the same level of thought and purposefulness to selecting people to help lead the company.
“Never Ask What He Would Do”
Not that Apple dogmatically follows the example of its late CEO — and that may have been his doing, too. According to Cook, Jobs once told him that Disney employees asked themselves what the company’s late founder, Walt Disney, would do in certain situations. “And he looked at me with those intense eyes that only he had, and he told me to never do that, to never ask what he would do,” Cook said at the D Conference earlier this year. “Just do what’s right.”
Many of the decisions Jobs made in the latter half of the 2000s—including some that predate his cancer diagnosis in 2003—seem now to have been attempts to position the company for long-term success. From stripping Computer from the company’s name to pursuing new businesses outside of Apple’s traditional comfort zone, Jobs spent much of his second stint looking toward the future. And it’s a quality he seemingly impressed upon his successors.
“Another thing Steve taught us all was not to focus on the past. Be future focused,” Cook told the D attendees. “If you’ve done something great or terrible in the past, forget it and go on and create the next thing.”
Apple under Jobs pushed for a new connectivity standard, perhaps ahead of its time, with Thunderbolt; Apple under Cook is making a similar push with Lightning on the iPhone 5. Apple under Jobs obsessed over build quality and minor details; Apple after him seems no different: The iPhone 5 has been hailed as the loveliest iPhone to date.
The Road Without Him
Apple’s future product releases will bear Jobs’s fingerprints for years to come— because he reshaped the company itself.
It’s clear that today’s Apple — from the executive team on down — was molded to Jobs’s vision. The first time he left Apple, the company changed radically, to its detriment. That didn’t happen this time around. Apple without Jobs is an awful lot like the company with him.
As Tim Cook, remembering Jobs on the first anniversary of his death, wrote on Apple’s website: “One of the greatest gifts Steve gave to the world is Apple.”