[Editor’s note: This story was originally posted in 2009 on the occasion of the first Steve Jobs medical leave.]
The downside of being a company that gets as much press attention as Apple is that it cuts both ways: while even the most minor product release can grab headlines, less positive news gets amplified as well. So Steve Jobs’s announcement on Wednesday that he’d be taking a six month leave of absence for medical reasons has apparently caused more panic and consternation than Godzilla setting foot in Tokyo Bay.
It’s true: there is no one person at Apple who can replace Jobs as an icon. He’s been the public face of the company for the last 10 years and his image has been inextricably tied to Apple since he co-founded the company more than 30 years ago. Ten years of keynotes and special events has solidified the image that the company’s a one-man show, even if we all know that’s not really true.
But while Steve as the one-man prophet, priest, and king may be irreplaceable—and I brook no argument over the fact that he’s a Great Man—that doesn’t mean that he can’t be replaced at all. Over the years, Apple’s developed a solid roster of senior talent in a myriad of fields, all of them players brought to the majors with the approval of Jobs himself. As CEO, he’s built a team that subscribes to his ideology, who can ably steer the ship in his absence, whether it be temporary or permanent.
So, instead of the Caesarean dictatorial rule of the Jobs era, think instead of the triumvirates of ancient Rome. Apple still has Tim Cook to run the day-to-day operations of the company—which, for many intents and purposes he’s been doing for awhile; Jonathan Ive to handle the design, as his gaggle of awards shows he’s capable; and Phil Schiller to handle product demos, as he ably did last week at Macworld Expo.
Just because Jobs’s image has conflated the roles of showman, designer-in-chief, and CEO into one über-role doesn’t mean that that’s the way it has to be. Sure, it’s one of the things that sets Apple apart from many of its competitors, but it’s certainly not the norm in the tech business world.
The triumvirate of Cook, Ive, and Schiller may lack some of the fabled reality distortion field of Steve Jobs, but there’s no doubt to my mind that they’re capable of creating the same kind of great products that we’ve come to expect from Apple. And that’s because, consciously or not, those executives have been learning from Steve—and, I’d argue, vice versa—for almost a decade. They’re attuned to the way he does things, because they’d have to be just to survive at Apple, never mind at such a high level.
But if there’s one thing that—”worries” is too strong a word—makes me curious in such an arrangement, it’s the issue of executive power: who has the authority to veto a project that isn’t up to snuff, and how will they use it? If Cook takes the CEO reins, will he exercise that ultimate verdict wisely, listening to counsel from the likes of Ive, hardware VP Bob Mansfield, and iPhone VP Scott Forstall? Or will he focus instead on the strength of his own instincts for operations, potentially killing off products that simply needed more time to mature? Take the Apple TV, for example: would a “hobby” like that survive in a Cook administration, or would it fall prey to the hatchet of operational efficiency? We just don’t know.
But then again, if that’s the biggest question, the company’s in pretty solid shape.
So don’t cry for Apple. This isn’t a repeat of 1985, where Jobs was ousted by a man in a suit with a completely different vision of the company—the people who are left running the company in Jobs’s absence are the people Jobs put there. While there may be no single hand-picked successor to Jobs, it doesn’t mean that there’s no successor at all—far from it. In fact, he’s got a whole company of successors, people who have come to Cupertino because they want to help make great products that they love. So even if Steve Jobs isn’t at the company in person, you can be sure that his influence will continue to be felt on every level for a long time to come.