Monday, August 29, 2011

Will Apple Ever Be The Same Company Without Steve Jobs as CEO?

[I wrote the following for the Chinese Wall Street Journal over the weekend. Here is the English translation which may differ from the original, due to final edits.]

Since Steve Jobs announced he would be stepping down as CEO of Apple (AAPL) last week, observers can't stop asking if the company has now changed forever.

Jobs is loved by his investors, customers, and employees. There's probably never been a CEO as admired by so many in the last 100 years.

Besides being a compelling communicator, Jobs is admired for his uncanny ability to envision and deliver products that consumers don't know they yet want.

Most companies get focus groups together to study how to build products that the most number of people want. Apple creates products that people had no idea they wanted or needed.

I remember when the iPad was introduced 18 months ago. For weeks before the official announcement, there were rumors that Apple would present a new tablet. Microsoft (MSFT) had built a couple of unsuccessful tablets previously. So, most weren't too excited about a new Apple tablet.

On the day of the announcement, I remember that many bloggers criticized the choice of the name "iPad." Several journalists asked Jobs after the event whether he was worried about people laughing at the name he'd selected. "No," he said, as he smiled and walked away.

By next year, Apple will have sold 100 million iPads.

Can Apple continue to innovate under new CEO Tim Cook? We might not know for 4 - 5 more years.

Cook doesn't have to "innovate" to create iPhone 5, 6, 7, etc., or iPad 3, 4, 5, etc. He won't have to innovate to create Apple TV, or deliver iCloud. The tracks have been set for many years to come -- with Jobs' blessing.

For someone who is as rumored to be as much of a "control freak" as Jobs, I find it hard to believe that Jobs hasn't helped sketch out the product road map for the next 10 years.

Cook clearly excels in the areas of operations, financials, and communicating with investors. I expect he'll keep focusing on those areas, and relying on the deep bench of talent at Apple for marketing, design, and new products. With a product roadmap well set out thanks to Jobs, we might not have to see Cook "innovate" until over a decade from now.

I expect that Jobs has sought to learn from another iconic American company, Disney (DIS), for inspiration for how to ensure Apple can continue to innovate. Jobs will continue to be the legend and inspiration for future product people at the company, just as Walt Disney is.

Disney is one example of a company that has continued to grow after its founder departed. Wal-Mart (WMT) is another example. Some will say that a technology or product company is different from a movie company or a low-cost merchant. It's true that Apple's users will be more fickle if they come out with a Newton or other less impressive product 10 years from now.

But if Steve Jobs is truly a "control freak," he's likely seen the mistakes made by other companies and by Apple during his exile in the 1990s. I suspect he's taken a lot of care, since he was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 8 years ago, to ensure that Apple and Tim Cook is set up for success in the foreseeable future.

Jobs hopes his legacy will not be any Apple product, but the organization he leaves behind.

[At the time of publication, Jackson was long MSFT and AAPL]

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