Aug. 24, 2011 at 9:10 PM ET
People like to make fun of the fact that Steve Jobs takes personal credit for Apple's successes, and where Apple's legion of "fanboys" unfairly attribute him credit. Obviously, a company with tens of thousands of employees can't chalk up every good idea to one individual, but an Apple without Jobs is a totally different company.
Future success or failure depends on the strength of the new leadership, not to mention the greater forces of the universe, but it's clear it will face challenges.
What Jobs brings to the table
There are four major factors that can be considered cumulatively as the Jobs effect: Imagination, continuity, destructiveness and focus.
Lots of sci-fi directors can come up with cool ideas for gadgets, but even in well-funded research facilities, you rarely see such spark. Jobs never let reporters into the research labs, but when he took to the stage, he generally revealed working ready-to-ship products that were more impressive than anything in his rivals' R&D centers. Jobs helped his company understand the difference between what is currently possible and what should be possible — his imagination didn't just empower the industrial design team, but the engineers tasked with the much harder challenge of making the devices actually work.
It's said that when the iPhone was unveiled, engineers from those rival companies thought Apple was lying: Anything that could do such beautiful multitouch interaction couldn't possibly get workable battery life. Today, of course, many phone makers have figured out how to balance those two things, but it took a few years of catch-up.
The funny thing about Jobs' imagination is that, though some products such as the iPhone or iPad seemed pretty far out, they were logical next steps. You could say that disruptive continuity is a key part of Apple's strategy. It's like the reverse of Occam's razor: All things being equal, what's the most extreme possible thing that could come out of the current state of affairs? If everybody is buying iPods, Jobs reasoned, soon everyone will put their music on phones instead. Likewise, if more people buy iPhones than Macs, why not make a Mac that's more like an iPhone? These may seem counterintuitive, but it's the kind of reasoning Jobs used all the time.
But I call it disruptive continuity because unlike its competitors, Apple under Jobs has never been afraid to cannibalize its own business. The iPhone eats more and more into iPod sales every quarter. The iPad is a low-priced alternative to a Mac. One of the things Jobs rivals will never be able to stomach is his ability to make his own products obsolete. The message of OS X was "The original Mac OS is dead." When Apple moved to Intel chips, they stopped writing software for the old PowerPC chips. iPods with FireWire stopped working, original iPhones just couldn't be updated. Did customers get angry? No! They just did what Jobs told 'em to do.
As many who follow U.S. politics know all too well, a healthy democracy does not reward imaginative, counterintuitive thinkers. Apple has not functioned as a democracy — in fact, it's a lot closer to Rome under Caesar. Because to get this kind of thing done, there needs to be a person who silences debate, and says "This is what will happen." If the buck starts with Jobs, it also stops there, as well.
Apple's battlefield status
Apple is a success story for the ages, to be sure, but Jobs isn't leaving the company tied up neatly with a big red bow. In fact, things are a bit of a mess.
Sure, the iPhone brings in more profit than all other phones combined, but it's a distant No. 2 behind Android, and that's just in smartphone rankings. The next few months will determine Apple's ability to regain ground against Google, not to mention Google's ability to show off its own innovation in order to keep people from the iPhone.
The iPad, too, is a runaway hit, with around 30 million sold in 16 months. But there's a big difference between a successful device and a dominant platform. If the tablet war will produce a single victor, like the PC battle of the '80s and '90s, it's still impossible to pick a sure winner. Android tablets aren't a huge threat at the moment, but Microsoft (a co-owner of msnbc.com with NBC Universal) is going to fight tooth and nail not to lose its Windows users. Even at its nadir, Windows' share of the personal computer market is still somewhere between 80 and 90 percent.
When it comes to cloud services, Apple is in a very delicate place. Though it has the largest army of paying customers for media and apps, it has nowhere near the membership of Facebook or Google's Gmail (and now, increasingly, Google+). A true long-term survival strategy requires hundreds of millions of people, literally addicted to your free services. Apple is only this fall launching its iCloud program, with free email, photo sharing and other perks. It's a promising start, but by definition currently has a public user base of exactly zero.
Plans for now and later
What the new leadership at Apple can be fortunate about is that, in the near term, nothing needs to be invented. The iPad really is the heir to the PC, and the iPhone's evolution is clear enough. Until the iCar and iHouse prototypes are ready, the company knows what it must focus on.
But market share battles are not what Apple is good at. A company that innovates at the cost of its own customer base isn't necessarily built to spread itself far and wide, damn the cost. But maybe that's what should define the post-Jobs era.
Maybe it's time for Apple to behave like Microsoft or other companies, and start defending its turf. This week brought news of a low-cost iPhone in the works, and bolstered rumors of the iPhone turning up at Sprint and T-Mobile. That kind of thinking isn't typical of Apple or Jobs, the autocrat who maintained the AT&T exclusivity in the United States while Android became a bestseller at the other three nationwide carriers.
Maybe there is a need for a low cost 7-inch iPad, a notion that Jobs has publicly abhorred. It may not be the best for many iPad apps, but it would be great for movies and books, and could possibly sell at a salivatingly low price point.
Fortunately, Apple inherits not just Jobs' work ethic, but a technology company that's built like none other in this era: They design their own hardware and software, granting them advantages in efficiency and economies of scale that allow them to reap huge profits while keeping costs lower than any other. This won't change anytime soon — no one currently working at Apple would likely try to repeat the mistake of the late 1990s, when Mac software was permitted to run on (gasp) non-Apple hardware.
As long as the leadership manages to stay on top of the market share battles, I have no doubt that Apple will be in reasonable shape for the time being, and might even make decisions that let it grow in ways that Jobs would not have foreseen or accepted.
The question is, will Apple have the ability to see what comes after the iPad? We know from Apple patents that they're thinking well ahead of the next year or two, and they reputedly have a list of future products that haven't yet been submitted for patent protection. For Apple's own sake, let's hope that fanboy talk is true.
The danger is that eventually Apple becomes more like Sony. The company once synonymous with technological innovation has been cripplingly complacent since the demise of its co-founders, Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, two men who combined to serve a role much like Jobs'. With no great visionary at the helm, Sony let a little white computerized music player lay waste to one of the strongest brands in history. Remember the Walkman? Yeah, it's kinda like an iPod, only with cassette tapes.
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