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A few months without Steve is a good thing…

One of the big news items during the past week has been the fact that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is taking a medical leave of absence for several months. The media has been frothing at the mouth over this: speculation regarding the death of Apple in the absence of this one man, guesses regarding the nature of Mr. Jobs’ illness, and even retrospectives of the man’s life as if he is already dead. Frankly, it is too much, and I personally think everyone, the media, the investors, and the public, should be ashamed. I also think that Steve’s leave will be a good thing for him and for the company itself.

First, there is no doubt in my mind that Steve Jobs is a very hands-on executive. He takes a demanding interest into the design and features of every product Apple makes. And his opinions have shaped the nature of the Apple product family: the simplicity of design (E.G.: only one button on the iPhone, no buttons on the Apple TV), the tactile and visual appeal of the products, and “we can change the world” attitude likely have their start with Steve. His influence on the company and its products is far greater than that held by most chief executives.

But Steve is just one man. He has some of the most brilliant designers and product experts in the industry on his executive team. Steve may approve or disapprove certain ideas, but the ideas themselves almost certainly originate with others in the company. Furthermore, the executive team at Apple has been fairly consistent for a number of years: these are people who have worked with, been guided by, and admired Steve for the better part of a decade. They are steeped in his ideas, his approach, and his mantra.

I think that Steve Jobs taking an extended leave is a good thing for two main reasons.

  • First, Steve Jobs needs some rest time to deal with his health. He is a human being with family and friends who love him. As a human who may be ill, he needs time to heal. To permit medications to do their job, to rest and build up his strength without distraction from less important things like whether the iPhone should be black or red. What he needs during this time are those friends and family, and peace: and guess what? None of us can help because we aren’t friends, and we certainly aren’t family. We have no right to be involved. Steve has more than filled his obligations as an executive of a publicly traded company: all we need to know is he is on medical leave, and he has put an executive team in place to manage the company in his absence
  • Second, both Apple and the public need to see how well the company can do without Steve. To demonstrate that the management team can do smart things in the absence of one man, and the company as a whole can continue to succeed. There is no doubt in my mind that Apple without Steve would be a different company, but I also believe that Apple has “absorbed” his principles, his design mantra, and his perfectionism. Steve’s leave of absence gives the company and the remaining executive team a chance to “shake down” their assumptions, and to prepare for Steve’s inevitable permanent departure.

I don’t think Apple is “dead” without Steve. I have more respect for the man and the company than to believe that.

Get well, Steve. And I expect great things from Tim Cook and the rest of the executive team in your absence.

2 comments to A few months without Steve is a good thing…

  • I was just having this discussion last night with my mother ( she wanted to know who Steve Jobs was and why everyone was in a frenzy,) and it occurred to me that what we see happening is exactly what we see in North Korea, Cuba, the Old Soviet Union; anyplace where there is a “cult of personality” style of leadership.

    And I look at all the media, and especially the “apple” media that hang on every word, I look at the people that go to apple specific conference / trade shows and would pretty much give a kidney to be in the room when “He” speaks…

    I look at all that and I can’t help but think back to 1984 and the iconic commercial for the original Mac, with all the grey faced drones listening to the words of the leader on the big screen … and I can’t help but think that apple has become exactly what it hated most.

  • I think I have to disagree somewhat with your characterization, Chris, of the “cult of Mac” becoming like the plebes submitting to “Big Brother”. Blank faced submissiveness to authority and capitulation to the thought police is what the 1984 ad was all about. I think the “cult of Mac” is more akin to rock star adulation: folks start to think that Mick Jagger *is* the Rolling Stones, for example.

    Underlying this cult-like worship of Jobs is a problem answering this question: what differentiates an Apple product from others in the market? I guess the easiest answer would be something like “a refined and consistent design ethic”. Or maybe a “vision” of how the products should be, including packaging, advertising, chassis design, OS, and applications.

    And where does that differentiation come from? I think it is safe to say that it started with a single, forceful, and uncompromising visionary. No committees, no revisions based on marketing studies- a pure design ethic. But where the “cult” seems to fail is that it assigns all of the responsibility for the products that result to a single individual. I think Jobs got Apple to where it is to a large extent as a result of force of personality, but I think his intolerance for “design by committee” and disdain for complex systems full of feature creep is more or less part of the culture he has created. The actual designs themselves and how they were built, how the technical problems were solved, and how they ultimately were marketed and supported has really been the result of other peoples effort. Take Steve away and there may be a vacuum, but it isn’t going to cause collapse of the rest of Apple.

    A really good example of the difference between “design by committee” and “design by vision/fiat” can be found in this video:

    It is worth noting that this was a Microsoft internal “educational” video produced by their packaging/marketing group to point out their problems. And this is exactly what the Mac cultists fear: that the loss of Steve Jobs will result in exactly this kind of horror being foisted off on their beloved “pure” products. Somehow, Apple is able to leave *out* features in a way that makes their product better.

    And you know, I don’t entirely blame them for the fear: I look at my MacBook, iPod or Apple TV, and purely based on bullet point features they are inferior to, say, an HP laptop, Zune, or HP MediaPC. Yet they work well and with tremendous “harmony” of purpose compared to those competitive products. Even more confusing, I can easily point out obvious and vexing missing features or outright flaws: things like non-removable batteries, lack of hard drive or memory upgrade options, and missing interfaces.

    I, as a skilled technical person, can’t clearly explain *why* the Apple versions are better, but can only wave my arms and say “because they are better”. I don’t have to figure them out every time I use them. They fit comfortably into how I do things and respond to my choices quickly and reliably. This is true throughout the Apple product families during the last decade. Jobs and Apple really are more like a major clothing designer: a Gucci, or Versace as opposed to an IBM or HP.

    Design “magic” like this is decidedly scary to most business people. You can’t quantify it, define it with a series of bullet points, or outsource it to China, and so folks are afraid it will disappear in the absence of the obvious driving force: Steve Jobs. Although I respect what Mr. Jobs and Apple have built, I don’t think it is that fragile of a thing.

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