A day without Steve

One sure way to dampen the spirits of a Mac enthusiast is to start talking about Apple without Steve Jobs at the helm.

A decade after Jobs’s return to the company he founded, the bad old days of the “beleaguered” Apple Computer Inc. have mercifully faded into memory. Apple today seems as strong as it has ever been, with hit products, steady profits, and money in the bank. Clearly, Steve Jobs is not just the hero of Apple’s recovery. He is the corporeal manifestation of the resurgent Apple—past, present, and future.

But Jobs’s battle with cancer a few years ago and the more recent options-backdating scandal have forced Apple followers everywhere to consider some uncomfortable possibilities. There’s also the more prosaic possibility of his retirement.

Lest you think that Jobs would never willingly leave his role at Apple, consider the case of Bill Gates, another leader who is strongly identified with the company he founded. Yet today, he is slowly relinquishing his leadership role at Microsoft. If Bill can learn to let go, then so can Steve.

Steve’s superpowers

Whatever its cause, what might Jobs’s departure mean for Apple?

Steve’s best-known talent is his ability to charm and persuade. The widely held belief is that his Reality Distortion Field (RDF) is a superpowerful form of salesmanship, which Jobs can use to convince anyone of anything.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if there’s one thing Steve Jobs cannot do, it’s lie convincingly about what he thinks of a technology product. Witness the disdain he displayed at the introduction of the Motorola Rokr cell phone two years ago. His disgust was transparent when he seemed to be unable to make the phone work correctly during the demonstration.

Steve’s persuasiveness stems entirely from his own personal certainty. You begin to believe that the new iPhone is the greatest communication device ever created because Steve believes it. Conversely, if he doesn’t believe it, you don’t feel it.

This transparency may seem like a crippling liability, but it’s actually a strength. What makes a Steve Jobs keynote so compelling is the fact that his opinions translate directly into Apple’s policies and products.

Obviously, one person can’t control every detail of every product, but Jobs has proven time and again his willingness to reach all the way down the organizational chart and make decisions about even the smallest features. His readiness to exert control over anything makes the idea that he controls everything seem reasonable. The coincidence between what Apple produces and what Steve Jobs can convincingly speak about reinforces the RDF legend.

What would Steve do?

Many of the things that make Jobs a captivating public face for Apple also make him an effective leader within Apple. His tendency to micromanage can more charitably be viewed as a refreshing willingness to cut through bureaucracy. Few “insanely great” products are created by committees, after all.

And if one person must make all the final decisions, Jobs is an excellent choice. He may not always be right, but his batting average is pretty darned good. And when he does foul one off (as with the design of the original flat-screen iMac) or strike out entirely (the G4 Cube), he moves on immediately. He may be remembered for his hits, but his failures have been equally responsible for honing his instincts.

Contemplating a Jobs-less Apple, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could play the same role in the company that Jobs does now. Though promoting from within seems the obvious choice, it may not be possible to find a replacement for Steve Jobs inside Apple. Autocratic rule tends to breed weak middle management. Current Apple executives often seem motivated by fear of Jobs rather than by their own intrinsic factors. Even worse would be someone who emulated Jobs’s despotism without his accompanying good instincts.

The only effective transition strategy may be to retain Jobs in spirit while converting the organization to a more democratic structure. Let the management mantra be “What Would Steve Do?” Above all, Jobs has always wanted to make the best products possible. To paraphrase Socrates: Virtue does not come from market share; rather, from virtue comes market share and all other good things. Steve Jobs may never be equaled by another single person, but he may be bettered by an entire organization that stays true to his ideals.

[ John Siracusa is a columnist for Ars Technica. ]

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