Apple's new task: To fight legends

August is known as a pretty quiet month for technology related news. Much of the western world is on vacation, so it’s usually the quiet before the storm that leads into the insanely busy holiday quarter.

This year was the exception. In a space of two weeks, Google bought Motorola’s mobility business, which includes set-top boxes and handsets. HP announced they were spinning off their PC business and leaving the smartphone and media tablet business (after shipping the TouchPad for only 47 days). Oh, and Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs stepped down from the post, naming Tim Cook as his successor.

That last bit of news sent the media scrambling for implications and impact. After all, conventional wisdom dictates that Apple and Steve Jobs are one inseparable and inexorably tied entity and Apple’s success over the last decade can only be attributed to the symbiotic combination of the two.

Let me be clear: No one can overestimate the role of Steve Jobs in the amazing transformation that Apple has undergone since his return to the late ’90s. The iPod, iPhone, iPad and the total reinvigoration of the Mac occurred under his tenure. His triumphant return to Apple more than a decade after he was fired from the company he founded, his stint as interim CEO, and his final acceptance of the full title are truly the makings of a business legend that will live on and be taught for years.

Just as a generation told their children of momentous events such as seeing the Beatles at Shea Stadium, I tell my children of attending Steve’s legendary Macworld keynotes and product introductions and of my conversations with him. Yes, the life and times of Steve Jobs are the things that legends are made of. In this lies Apple’s greatest challenge ahead. The ability to fight legends.

“I will teach you… Until you are ready. To fight legends.”
Ambassador Kosh, to Captain Sheridan

Despite all that Steve Jobs accomplished, it’s critical to note that there is far more to Apple than any one individual… even if that individual is Steve Jobs. It’s romantic to think of him toiling away in his garage at all hours of the day and night to create the product that would be the legendary “one more thing.” Then after burning the midnight oil, he’d hop in the car and drive up to San Francisco and show it to an enthusiastic audience and world.

To do so is to forget the thousands of Apple employees who designed, built, marketed and sold those products as well. Names like Jonathan Ive, Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall, Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, Greg Joswiak and many others too numerous to mention all play key roles in creating and delivering Apple products to the world. To the best of my knowledge, none of them are going anywhere anytime soon.

To those that are concerned with a new CEO at the helm, it should be noted that Tim Cook is not an outsider brought in by a headhunting firm to replace Steve Jobs, but is a long-tenured employee who has not only shown expertise in operations but has taken the CEO position three times during leave of absences by Steve Jobs. He has effectively overseen Apple’s day-to-day business since the beginning of this year. In short, Tim Cook is a tried and tested person filling this role, and under his leadership the company has seen some of its most profitable quarters and largest growth in valuation.

Perhaps the single biggest mistake Apple has made in the last decade was tying the success of the company too tightly with the charismatic persona that is Steve Jobs and downplaying the role of others. In recent years, Apple has worked hard to showcase those others and make their contributions more widely known.

In the end, however, it is not Steve Jobs’s charisma and even brilliance that drove consumers to purchase Apple products. In fact, the majority of consumers have never seen or heard Mr. Jobs speak or present; they know only of his legend. It is in this effort that Apple needs to focus: In many areas, Apple’s challenge is not fighting competitors, it’s fighting the legend of Steve Jobs and focusing the consumer not on any one individual but rather on Apple, Inc.

The departure of Steve as CEO marks an interesting historical moment, but to be clear, Steve hasn’t quite left the building yet. He remains Apple’s chairman of the board and his impact internally within Apple and externally on products that are delivered to market will be felt for many years to come.

Tim Cook will succeed Steve Jobs, but no one can ever replace him. Apple’s product introductions will be different and we’ll likely see more faces of Apple than ever before. But that won’t matter all that much. Apple will be judged—as it has been for the last decade—on its ability to raise the bar on its own products, to introduce new devices and services that capture the hearts and minds of the consumer.

That is the true legacy of Steve Jobs: The management teams he leaves behind and the imprint of his ethos, if not his wardrobe, that will drive Apple in the future.

[Michael Gartenberg is an analyst and long-time Mac user who covers the world of the interconnected consumer for Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own.]

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