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What Apple can learn from Microsoft in post-Jobs era

Apple now finds itself in much the same position as Microsoft. Its iconic co-founder is stepping down, and continuing on as the chairman of the company’s board.
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The resignation of Steve Jobs as Apple’s CEO today starts a new era for the company, and as we all attempt to wrap our heads around the implications, it’s important to remember that we’ve actually seen this before.

In fact, it’s one case where Microsoft was way ahead of Apple, without question.

Of course, Bill Gates’ departure from day-to-day duties at Microsoft in 2008 was different in a lot of ways. For one thing, it wasn’t nearly as abrupt. Gates gave up his title as CEO in 2001, and then announced plans to leave his role an executive in 2006, a full two years before actually heading out the door.

But in other ways, Apple now finds itself in much the same position as Microsoft. Its iconic co-founder is stepping down, and continuing on as the chairman of the company’s board.

Having watched Microsoft go through this entire process — good and bad — this would be my advice.

Put a product visionary in a position of overarching power
This is one area where Microsoft has fallen short in the Post-Gates Era. CEO Steve Ballmer has years of experience running the business, but as we’ve noted in the past, it hasn’t found the right person to to lead technology initiatives as a strong second-in-command to Ballmer, ensuring that Microsoft has a cohesive technical strategy across the company.

Apple is in a similar position, with Cook’s strengths coming from operations and business.

As observed by Howard Wu in a comment on our earlier post, Apple has a logical candidate in this regard in Jonathan Ive, its current senior vice president of industrial design. The company would be smart to elevate him in function, if not in title.

Make sure Jobs understands his new role, and sticks to it
Things can get very awkward, very quickly, when a company’s retired founder sticks his nose back into the business — or worse, says something publicly that’s at odds with the strategy of the new regime.

This is one problem that Bill Gates has gone to great lengths to avoid, perhaps to a fault — such as the Microsoft shareholders’ meeting a couple years ago when he said not one word the entire time. On the rare occasions when he has said something significant about Microsoft’s business, it has always been brief and supportive, such as his comments endorsing Microsoft’s $8.5 billion Skype acquisition.

The approach was also on display in April. Trying to fend off repeated questions about the iPad, Gates told the Boston Globe, “It’s not my full-time focus now,” he said.

That’s the right answer. In the case of Apple, the company will need to reinforce the notion that Cook is in charge and has a firm grasp of the business. Jobs and the company will need to recognize that this is a new era and act accordingly.

Yeah, that Jobs biography in November could get a little awkward for the company.

It’s a fine line. “In his new role as Chairman of the Board, Steve will continue to serve Apple with his unique insights, creativity and inspiration,” said Apple board member Art Levinson in the news release announcing Jobs’ resignation.

That’s a nice way to reassure shareholders, and employees, but if it goes too far, it could spell trouble.

Accept that your public events will never again have the same mystique
This one is the corollary of the previous one. If your founder is truly moving on to a new role as chairman, it starts to become a little weird to keep trotting him out to introduce your one more thing. And without your iconic leader on stage, your events and product announcements won’t be the automatic attention-grabbers that they once were.

Which explains why one of the most important product launches in recent Microsoft history –the debut of its Kinect motion sensor for Xbox 360 – was a circus act, literally.

Of course, Apple has the advantage that its products are hot right now. The tech press will be jockeying for position at the iPhone 5 launch event whether or not Steve Jobs on stage.

But in the interest of the company’s long-term future, Apple marketing boss Phil Schiller would be wise to start practicing his Reality Distortion Field.

Mark the occasion as a way of moving forward
Today’s events were historic. Steve Jobs is a legend. Apple needs to do something beyond a news release and a letter from Jobs to give its employees and customers a sense of closure and a feeling that there’s a clear path ahead.

This is one that Microsoft got right. I feel fortunate to have been there in June 2008 for the company’s farewell to Bill Gates, attended by hundreds of Microsoft employees and piped into Microsoft offices around the world.

They laughed, they cried, and then they moved on. It was good. Apple should do something similar. Steve Jobs deserves it.

Apple, like Microsoft, is now in the hands of mere mortals.

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