Apple: We're not a one-man show

In the days since Steve Jobs announced that he was taking a leave of absence from Apple, I’ve been inundated with questions from users, friends, colleagues, and members of the mainstream media. The most popular conception of Apple—one that, let’s be honest, Apple has nurtured to a certain degree—is that it’s the Steve Jobs Show. Popularly, he’s the man who invents the products, designs them, plans their marketing campaigns, the works.

Which is obviously silly. Apple is a huge corporation with tens of thousands of employees. It’s not just Steve Jobs and a bunch of lackeys. And yet, I do think that’s the perception most people have about Apple.

Jobs is, as Reggie Jackson famously said about himself, the straw that stirs the drink. And to beat the baseball metaphors into the ground, Jobs is undoubtedly Apple’s most valuable player, because he has skill in so many different disciplines. But as we San Franciscans know, having suffered through losing seasons as Barry Bonds concluded his march on the home run record, a single franchise player isn’t enough to make a winning team.

That’s why, in the decade-plus Jobs has been back at Apple, he’s remade the company in his own image, bringing in people who fit his vision and working style. If and when Jobs steps away from Apple permanently, he won’t be replaced by any single person. He will instead be replaced by a bunch of different people, each with strengths in particular areas. Apple’s bench is deep.

This idea—that Apple’s got a strong team and a core philosophy that’s far beyond any single player—was brought home by a lengthy reply Apple COO Tim Cook gave to a question about Steve Jobs’ health during Wednesday’s financial conference call. Here’s what Cook said, word for word:

There is an extraordinary breadth and depth and tenure among the Apple executive team. And these executives lead over 35,000 employees that I would call all “wicked smart.” And that’s in all areas of the company, from engineering, to marketing, to operations, sales, and all the rest.

And the values of our company are extremely well-entrenched. You know, we believe we’re on the face of the Earth to make great products, and that’s not changing. We’re constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollinization of our groups, which allows us to innovate in a way others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit where we’re wrong, and the courage to change.

And I think regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well. And I would just reiterate a point Peter made in his opening comment, that I strongly believe that Apple is doing the best work in its history.

What about the next six months, while Jobs is on leave save for “major strategic decisions?” During Wednesday’s call, Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer repeatedly declared how excited they were about Apple’s “new product pipeline.” That’s sending a signal: Apple is a company that works on a long schedule, with a road map of developments that goes out quite a ways. Certainly longer than six months. So I’m sure there are plenty of interesting products in the pipeline. The company will announce them when it’s good and ready.

I’m sure that Jobs’s health issues have led to the company considering how to structure itself so that not as much of the weight of management falls on him, but that may have happened five years ago when Jobs had cancer. Apple will keep doing what it’s been doing. It’s riding the wave of the iPhone’s success, especially when it comes to the third-party app store. There will be a new version of OS X this year, new Mac hardware, new iPods, possibly a new device somewhere between an iPod touch and a MacBook… in other words, I think this will be your typical Apple year in terms of products, whether or not Jobs is present at their unveiling.

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