A year after Steve Jobs's death: As we should have expected, it's the same Apple

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Much has been made of how Apple would survive in a post-Steve Jobs world. And in the year since the former CEO passed away at age 56 after a long illness, new Apple boss Tim Cook has been repeatedly subjected to comparisons to his predecessor. The comparisons are not usually flattering: “Steve Jobs would never have allowed that” has become such a constant cry in some corners of the tech press, it’s turned into something of a cliche.

Worse, though, that line of thinking betrays a lack of insight into the way that Apple—and, frankly, Steve Jobs—has acted. For all of the iconic Apple co-founder’s achievements—and there were many, many of those—his most lasting accomplishment may be how he prepared Apple to thrive long after he had left the company.

Out of a Jobs

Remember that Jobs had already left Apple once in his career—and not at all by choice. In a power struggle with then-CEO John Sculley, Jobs came out on the losing end, with the company’s board of directors forcing him out amid sluggish Mac sales.

Jobs subsequently said that getting fired from Apple turned out to be “the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” After his departure from Apple, he would found Next (which produced many of the technologies at the heart of Apple’s Mac platform today) and purchase Pixar. The firing “freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life,” Jobs would tell Stanford University students during a 2005 commencement speech.

It also likely gave him perspective on the company he co-founded, which would serve him well when he returned to a now-struggling Apple as interim CEO in 1997. That perspective was further honed by a cancer diagnosis in 2004. “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” Jobs said in his Stanford speech. “Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

That certainly explains some of the bold moves Apple has made in the last decade-and-a-half, expanding beyond computers to conquer digital music, smartphones, and tablets. But it also can clearly be seen in the company’s notoriously rigorous hiring process—even applicants for junior positions are carefully vetted to make sure they fit in with Apple’s philosophy. And Jobs was especially thorough when it came to recruiting and cultivating senior executives for his company.

On people and philosophy

Jobs was always dedicated to finding the right people for the task at hand—one could argue that it was among his greatest strengths. Over the course of the last decade, he spent a lot of time and energy in assembling an executive team that could to a large degree function without him. People like Tim Cook, Jonathan Ive, Phil Schiller, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue, and Scott Forstall each bring elements to the team that Jobs himself could not.

But here too, Jobs’s record is hardly perfect. That’s perhaps best exemplified by the strange case of Mark Papermaster. In 2008, the former IBM exec was brought on to head up Apple’s device hardware engineering division, a decision that led to months of strife as IBM tried to block his appointment via lawsuit. But even after all the legal issues were resolved, Papermaster ended up serving just 18 months at the company, taking his leave after the iPhone 4 antenna controversy. While many assumed his departure was as a result of that highly publicized issue, a Wall Street Journal report suggested that it had more to do with a “broader cultural incompatibility.”

That culture can be a hard thing to fathom, especially from outside the company, but it’s been espoused by both Jobs and Cook in many of their public appearances.

For Jobs, it was defined by the intersection of technology and literal arts: two seemingly disparate disciplines that, when combined, could yield “the result that makes our heart sing.” In other words, it’s not purely about the specs of device, but about what products can do to, in another of his commonly used phrases, “surprise and delight” us.

With that as Jobs’s focus, it’s easy to put the pieces together and see that the people he brought into the company were all attempts to bolster this philosophy. Jobs notoriously picked specific elements of design or materials that helped define what an Apple product was—it’s no surprise that the same level of thought and purposefulness went into the people that he selected to help lead the company he founded.

‘Never ask what he would do’

While Steve Jobs’s impact will always inform the company to a certain degree, that doesn’t mean Apple is dogmatically following the example of its late CEO. And that may have been by design all along. According to Cook, Jobs once told him how Disney employees would ask themselves what the company’s late founder, Walt Disney, would do in certain situations. “And he looked at me with those intense eyes that only he had, and he told me to never do that, to never ask what he would do,” Cook said at the D Conference earlier this year. “Just do what’s right. And so I’m doing that.”

Regardless of how you evaluate Jobs as an executive or as a person, it’s clear that he was a savvy businessman who knew how to get the best out of his company. Suggesting that he would fail to plan for the future of Apple, especially given what he knew about his own health, seems to go against the very thesis of the “that’s not what Steve Jobs would do” meme that’s so popular these days.

Many of the decisions made by Jobs in the latter half of the 2000s, and even some that predate his diagnosis, seem in retrospect to have been attempts to position the company for long-term success. From stripping the name “Computer” from the company’s name to pursuing new businesses outside of Apple’s traditional comfort zone, Jobs spent much of his second stint looking toward the future. And it’s a quality he seemingly impressed upon his successor.

“Another thing Steve taught us all was not to focus on the past. Be future focused,” Cook told D10 attendees. “If you’ve done something great or terrible in the past, forget it and go on and create the next thing.”

Jobs’s biggest legacy

The question some asked—customers, enthusiasts, investors—after Jobs’s passing was whether the company he build could continue to achieve the kind of success to which it had become accustomed, without him at the helm.

Unfairly, every Apple misstep over the past year has caused that question to be rephrased more confrontationally: “What would Steve Jobs have done?” Apple may have misstepped with iOS 6’s built-in Maps functionality, for example, about which Tim Cook eventually published a public letter of apology.

But rather than exemplifying the supposed mess that is post-Jobs Apple, the issue itself—and the company’s reaction to it—come directly out of the Steve Jobs playbook. Continuing to distance itself from Google is an Apple business strategy championed by Jobs, whose relationship with the search giant turned mighty sour upon the release of Android, which Jobs felt shamelessly cribbed from the iPhone.

And the motivation to ship products aggressively early, even if the transition would feel tough for Apple and its customers alike, is again in Steve Jobs’s image: Remember that his Apple dropped the floppy drive, killed OS 9 in favor of OS X, migrated from PowerPC to Intel chips—and made all of those moves unapologetically.

And it was Jobs’s Apple whose MobileMe launch turned into a disaster—one for which he apologized. Jobs apologized when Apple dropped the price of the original iPhone, angering some early adopters. And he penned public notes on Apple’s website about digital music, about Flash, and so on. Cook appears to be picking up right where Jobs left off.

Apple under Jobs pushed for a new connectivity standard, perhaps ahead of its time, with Thunderbolt; Apple under Cook is making a similar push with Lightning on the iPhone 5. Apple under Jobs obsessed over build quality and minor details; Apple after him seems no different: The iPhone 5 has been hailed as the loveliest iPhone to date.

We may never know how much of Apple’s product roadmap had been shaped before Jobs’s death in October 2011; that’s not the kind of detail the company shares with the public. But whether Jobs was involved directly in their planning or not, Apple’s future product releases will bear his fingerprints for years to come. That’s because no single product—not the Mac, not the iPod, not the iPhone, not the iPad—benefited more from Jobs and his influence than Apple the company.

It’s clear that Apple today, from the executive team on down, was shaped and molded to Jobs’s vision of how Apple should operate. The first time Jobs left Apple, the company without him was wildly different—to its detriment. That didn’t happen this time around. Apple without Jobs now is an awful lot like the company with him; while popular culture may have exulted Jobs as the visionary leader who directly influenced every product that left Cupertino, his seeming focus was on the company’s culture itself. Apple, more than any individual product it released, is surely Jobs’s most significant legacy.

As Tim Cook, remembering Jobs on the first anniversary of his death, wrote on Apple’s website: “One of the greatest gifts Steve gave to the world is Apple… We share the great privilege and responsibility of carrying his legacy into the future.”

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