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A tale of two Apples: How Apple follows Steve Jobs's lead by not following it

Tim Cook’s instruction from Steve Jobs was clear: Don’t let Apple become paralyzed like Disney did in the wake of Walt Disney’s death, endlessly asking what the esteemed founder would do in any given situation. The only directive from Jobs’s tenure that mattered after his death was the one that freed Cook and everyone else at Apple from playing “What Would Steve Do?”

Criticism of post-Jobs Apple tends to run in one of two directions (unless you’re the author of Haunted Empire and want to have it both ways): Either Apple is doomed because it’s slavishly following the out-of-date playbook of its former CEO, or it’s doomed because it’s not following the playbook of its genius former CEO.

As a close observer of Apple before, during, and after Jobs’s tenure, I can tell you that the Apple of today is not playing by the Steve Jobs playbook—except for the bit that demanded that everyone stop asking what Steve would do. Tim Cook and his lieutenants are immersed in the Apple culture created by Steve Jobs, of course, but they’re applying that culture to an ever-changing world—rather than going to the 2011 playbook.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the $3 billion acquisition of Beats. Apple bought plenty of companies during Jobs’s run, but most of those acquisitions were of below-the-waterline companies that were broken up for their component parts, their employees integrated into Apple’s workforce. Beats is an existing consumer brand that will presumably continue—forcing Apple to steward another customer-facing brand for the first time in recent memory. (Claris/FileMaker is the next closest example, and it’s not that close.)

Jobs was famously not a fan of the concept of music subscription services. Were Jobs alive today, even he might change his mind on that point, but since he’s not here it’s up to Cook, Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, and the rest of Apple’s brain trust to make these calls. It sure seems like music subscription services are going to be a major part of how people listen to music in the future, and Apple had no position in that space. Beats Music, though new and small, is also an excellent service with smart curation features. It gets Apple in the game.

Then there’s Beats Electronics, the maker of popular headphones. We can debate the quality of the product—Apple itself doesn’t make the best-sounding headphones in the world—but they’re popular, successful, and cool. Apple’s own retail outlets sell loads of them. By buying Beats, not only does Apple get to influence the future of a cool product (and ensure that it works best with Apple’s latest stuff), it also keeps its competitors’ grubby mitts off of it.

Really, the Beats acquisition is just the latest sign that this is not Steve’s Apple, but rather the post-Steve Apple that Steve himself demanded that Cook create. Cook has also added a charity matching program, began buying back Apple shares, and offered shareholders a dividend.

Apple’s PR and product approach and schedule, once predictable, are now in anything-can-happen mode. The general public can beta-test versions of OS X. Mountain Lion’s roll-out was different. Mavericks was free. Apple execs embraced the 30th anniversary of the Mac in a way Jobs wouldn’t have. Last year’s iPhone was replaced by a new model rather than simply being dropped in price.

I might even argue that in some ways, Apple executives have been able to unmake some decisions that Jobs himself—perhaps unwisely—insisted on. The “thermonuclear” patent war Jobs started with Google shows signs of abating, since it’s clear now that the results of those trials are embarrassing disclosures, huge legal fees, and slight slaps on the wrist to the infringers.

The evidence is clear: Apple is taking Steve Jobs’s advice to heart and not remaining static in the wake of his death. I have no idea if Apple and Beats will end up being a good match—I’m interested to see if Apple truly embraces music subscriptions, or keeps Beats Music at arm’s length from iTunes. What I’m excited by is the fact that the Beats acquisition is not a move that Apple would have made a few years ago.

I believe that if Apple stuck by the What Would Steve Do playbook, it would truly be doomed—by looking backward and second-guessing key decisions based on strategies that are increasingly out of date. Steve Jobs famously changed his mind all the time, but his posthumous wisdom doesn’t have that capability. Instead, Apple executives are making interesting and risky decisions—just as Steve Jobs once did. Whether the Beats acquisition ultimately succeeds or fails, the fact that it happened at all is a good sign for Apple’s future.

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