In light of today’s story about Steve Jobs taking another medical leave, I can’t help but muse briefly on the obvious yet roundly ignored truth that Apple and Steve Jobs are not identical.
I can’t think of any other company where people routinely talk as if the CEO personally approves everything. Yes, we know he’s very “hands on” and has a lot of input into product development, but when an iPhone does something one way and not another people speak as if that’s a personal decision Jobs made. “Oh, Steve Jobs doesn’t want your phone to be a personal hotspot.” (Now, presumably he does.) “Your Macbook doesn’t have an SD slot because Steve Jobs doesn’t want one there.” (Maybe, maybe not.) “Macs aren’t in business because Steve Jobs hates the enterprise.” (Uh, look, Macs are in a lot of businesses, and did you consider that Apple might make decisions based on what’s profitable for them?) “Macs will all be like iOS because that’s what Steve Jobs wants.” (Wait, what?) “OS X should use
zsh as the shell, but Steve Jobs is a
All right, I haven’t read the last one, but I bet it’s just because I haven’t trawled Slashdot enough recently.
Is this because Jobs is so often the public face of the company? Possibly, but Dave Thomas was the public face of Wendy’s Hamburgers, and we know he had input into several of his company’s signature products—yet nobody assumed that Wendy’s would suddenly forget how to make burgers, shakes and sad sad fries after Thomas was gone. “Dammit, he was the only guy who knew how to make those buns. Close up shop, people!” And no, this is not a perfect analogy—Wendy’s did have travails after Thomas departed, but Wendy’s was never in a position of great strength in their industry. Anyone who doesn’t think Apple is in a strong position is deluded, extremely uninformed or practicing magical thinking.
I suspect it’s largely because we’ve seen Apple without Steve Jobs and remember that by and large nobody gave a damn about the company then, and there’s a tacit assumption that a post-Jobs Apple will slide back into the shape it was in the mid-90s. This isn’t a very logical assumption—the executive and engineering team at Apple now is all from Jobs’ corporate regime, which is a very different scenario from the time he was fired from the company by an executive regime which didn’t want anything to do with him.
Jobs’ greatest talent is often described as a willingness to say “no” to things that don’t meet his vision. I don’t know that Dave Thomas would have been all that thrilled with the multiple flavors of Frosty—he specifically wanted that flavor of Frosty and that flavor alone. Then again, Wendy’s was the first fast food restaurant to have salad bars and that was under Thomas, and they’re all gone now. Sort of like the iPod HiFi. (“Where’s the bass?” Ha ha sorry.)
But is Jobs the only one there with that ability? Tim Cook probably has it—and so does Jony Ive, whose influence seems to rarely be mentioned in the press. When you look at any of Apple’s current products, you’re not looking at Steve Jobs’ design work—you’re looking at Ive’s work. (Your Macbook does not have an SD slot because Jony Ive doesn’t want one there, kid.)
I’m expecting a round of people making doomsaying statements maximized for insensitivity, and an equal number of people dismissing this leave as something relatively trivial and mocking the doomsayers. I’m not willing to pontificate on the likelihood of Jobs’ return to his desk—those who will “assure” us that he is or he isn’t is, for the time being, speaking out of their butt—but I’m always up for mocking doomsayers. Five years from now, whether or not Jobs is still at their campus daily, Apple will continue making products in their typical pattern: terrific-looking industrial design, missing some features that tech pundits claim are vital for success, priced at points that pundits claim are way too high, and that sell like cocaine-laced hotcakes.