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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Steve Jobs: The End of an Era, Not the End of Apple
As Apple CEO Steve Jobs steps down, he leaves behind an unmatched legacy of innovation in personal computers and consumer electronics. In his first stint at Apple, the he created the Apple II with co-founder Steve Wozniak and then shepherded the Macintosh to market. Since his return to the company 15 years ago, Jobs has revolutionized the industry in many ways: he changed portable digital music players from a niche product into a lifestyle with the iPod; reinvented the phone business and indeed our entire expectations of connected mobile devices with the iPhone; and introduced tablet computing to the masses and a new way of consuming media and entertainment with the iPad. He did this all while reinvigorating the Mac line, adding design touches to the iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air that have cued the entire PC industry.
More than anyone else, Jobs incited the major changes in consumer technology over the past decade. But he would be among the first to say that the products weren't the work of a single individual, rather a strong team and processes that will continue at Apple.
Apple is in a far different place today than it was when Jobs was forced out of the company in 1985. Then it was struggling to find a role for the Mac in an industry completely dominated by the IBM PC and compatible computers. In many ways, the vision of the graphical user interface and connected workstations embodied by the Mac, and later by Jobs' NeXT computer, was ahead of its time. It required equipment that was just too expensive for the mass market.
But now, Apple sits in a position of strength. The iPod and iPad rule their markets and the iPhone grasps a strong lead in the smartphone category (despite increased competition from Android phones). And while Mac sales continue to lag behind those of Windows based PCs, the far more profitable Mac has been gaining market share steadily.
In the short term, Apple's position and plans in those markets will likely persist as Jobs departs. The company's products for the next year are presumably already set, and I'm sure it has a roadmap for the next few years. During Jobs' medical leaves, new Apple CEO Tim Cook demonstrated his ability to lead the company and roll out new products. The company retains the same executives heading design, marketing, engineering, and the like. Although no one else at Apple has Jobs' stage presence for product introductions, no one at any of his competitors' companies does either.
In the medium term, the biggest question may be the little things. Jobs has famously been known for monitoring and modifying tiny product details, the kind that separate a nice product from a "magical" one. His particular style and sense has earned him the respect within the company to send back products repeatedly until they are refined to his standard. Even Bill Gates, in their joint interview at D5 a few years back, said, "I'd give a lot to have Steve's taste."
Long term effects are always much harder to predict. Jobs has envisioned the future of technology second to none. It will be years before we know whether his successors will be able to see likewise where the industry is headed and move the company there. Innovation at successful companies often trails that at startups, and Apple now commands its markets. But Pixar has continued to make quality movies since Jobs left as CEO and the company was sold to Disney. There's no reason Apple shouldn't be able to follow suit.
Jobs intends to stay active at Apple for as long as he can. Assuming the role of chairman, he won't be making the day-to-day decisions, but he will certainly remain involved in major product decisions.
Whether you use Mac or Windows, iPhone or Android, Steve Jobs deserves credit for driving the industry forward over the past 35 years, and especially the past 15. As he said in his Stanford University commencement speech a few years back, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do." He certainly made his passion for Apple and its products clear. He'll be missed as Apple's CEO; I hope he has a long tenure as its chairman and can contribute to innovative products for years to come.