First, a disclaimer, just in case you weren’t sure: I’m not Steve Jobs’s doctor. And I believe that all of us who aren’t responsible for his medical well-being are in no position to have an informed opinion about it—and that to deal in rumor on the topic is just plain rude. (Even the most famous CEO on the planet is entitled to some privacy.) So I’m not going to make any guesses about the present or future of the man’s health. Or say much of anything about it other than that I wish him a full and speedy recovery from the issues that so many people have speculated about in such detail based on so little hard information.
But with Jobs’ announcement Wednesday that he plans to go on medical leave until the end of June, one thing is fact, not conjecture: Assuming that Jobs’ leave of absence is no shorter or longer than he expects it to be, Apple will spend slightly less than half a year without the day-to-day involvement of its cofounder and CEO. That would be a major deal for any company. For an organization as symbiotic with its leader as this one, it’s extraordinary. (When Bill Gates announced he was abandoning day-to-day involvement in running Microsoft, not for half a year but forever, it was major news; nobody, however, questioned Microsoft’s viability or even expected it to be a very different place without him.)
So what impact will Steve’s temporary removal from his company have on it? His two past extended absences from Apple over the past 33 years can’t tell us too much about the next six months. The one that began in 1985 with his unwilling exodus and lasted until Apple acquired his NeXT startup in 1996 was far too long and traumatic to be comparable, and the one forced by his cancer surgery in 2004 was too short. (That second time, Jobs spent only a month out of commission and a month working part-time before returning to full duty.)
The one piece of encouraging news is that his hand-picked lieutenants are a talented bunch with deep exposure to the mind of Jobs: executives such as Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook (who will run Apple in the interim), marketing head Phil Schiller, design superstar Jonathan Ive, and iPod software leader Scott Forstall. I have a hunch that pundits who are confident that Steve Jobs makes every major decision at Apple through brilliant, imperious fiat have been known to credit him with moves made by other Apple employees, and that the company’s leadership will manage to make plenty of smart choices over the six months without him.
The period between Macworld Expo in early January and Apple’s own Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in midyear is traditionally relatively humdrum, anyhow: The laptop and desktop Macs the company rolls out during the period tend to be existing models with zippier CPUs, not all-new models, and fresh new iPods arrive in the fall. Conventional wisdom has it that the lack of any Apple blockbusters at Macworld Expo means that the company has a significant new item or two up its sleeve for release in the next month or two, such as an upgraded Mac Mini and/or iMac, or maybe even a new iPhone. It might. But the Apple marketing machine is extraordinarily potent even if has to do without a turtlenecked Jobs personally demoing a product to acolytes and journalists; it can surely pay for enough billboards and TV commercials to get any gizmo it releases off to a solid start.
No, it’s not the products that appear between now and late June that run the biggest risk of being hurt by Jobs’ medical leave. It’s the ones that will happen later in 2009, in 2010, and maybe even beyond—the ones that are still on the drawing board, and still in need of the disciplined refinement that Jobs is so skilled at providing.
And speaking of drawing boards, the executive that Jobs reminds me of most isn’t another inhabitant of Silicon Valley. It’s Walt Disney—another self-made California tycoon so synonymous with the company he founded that it was hard to imagine it without him. (I’d feel that way even if Jobs hadn’t created Pixar, the greatest animation studio since Disney, in his copious spare time—and eventually sold it to Disney.)
Walt Disney wasn’t an animator; Steve Jobs isn’t an engineer. But like Disney, Jobs excels both at defining his company’s overall vision and fussing over niggling little details of the products he creates. Apple’s overarching vision is unlikely to change radically in six months—and Jobs says he intends “to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out”—so it’s the niggling little details that I worry about.
Jobs, like Disney, is as much an editor as a showman, and as with all world-class editors, the things he takes away are at least as important as the things he adds. It’s tough to envision an Apple without Jobs coming up with a cell phone with only one button on the front, for instance, or a laptop with a battery that can’t be removed. He may or may not have been the instigator of those particular decisions, but they represent Jobsian thinking, and are a radical departure from the groupthink and compromise that make so many tech products from other companies so unmemorable.
Apple is unquestionably working on next-generation Macs, iPods, and iPhones right now that won’t see the light of an Apple Store until well after Jobs’s scheduled return. It may be working on tablets or TVs or netbooks. If any or all of those products have to do without his input at crucial moments during the design process, they’ll suffer—even if he’s back at work well before they’re released. There’s certainly no evidence that Tim Cook, with whom the buck will stop until June, can play Jobs’ editing role.
Assuming (and hoping) that Jobs does indeed wrap up his medical leave as planned—perhaps in time to preside over WWDC, which is usually in June but hasn’t had its 2009 schedule announced yet—I’m betting that we’ll never know the full impact of his time off. Apple’s brass isn’t going to badly botch any products while he’s away, and the fact that Steve Jobs is involved in a decision doesn’t guarantee it’ll be a good one. (Exhibit A: The G4 Cube Mac.) When the day comes that Apple has to do without Jobs permanently, slavishly mimicking his thinking won’t be any way to keep Apple flourishing. The Disney company’s attempts to channel Walt after his death in 1966 left it floundering for years. But for the next six months, asking “What would Steve do?” should be good enough.
[Former PC World editor in chief Harry McCracken now blogs about personal tech at his own site, Technologizer. This article is a coproduction of PC World and Technologizer and is being published on both sites.]