Yes, Apple Can Survive Without Steve Jobs

The news that Steve Jobs won’t be giving the keynote speech at the Macworld Expo in January has revived rumors that the Apple [AAPL] CEO might be too ill to work.

The news that Steve Jobs won’t be giving the keynote speech at the Macworld Expo in January has revived rumors that the Apple [AAPL] CEO might be too ill to work. At least one research analyst has downgraded Apple’s stock, citing the lack of transition plan should Jobs’ pancreatic cancer force him to retire. Do they really need one?


Yes, Jobs has built and rebuilt the Apple empire with stunning foresight and intuition. But a lot of the brainpower behind the Apple Inc. we know today doesn’t belong to Jobs at all. Like any smart CEO, he’s picked smart people to back him up — not just yes-men who will execute his all-encompassing vision. Apple doesn’t have a Ballmer problem.

The ingenious translucent design of the original iMacs? The click-wheel iPod? Those were the products of award-winning industrial designer and Apple Senior Vice President of Industrial Design Jonathan Ive. Ive was also the force behind Apple’s current minimalist aesthetic: the streamlined, orthoganal shapes that made up the Titanium PowerBook G4 and the MacBook. Oh, and that iPhone 3G thing that has sold 10 million units as of October? Also an Ive design.

The Apple Store, too, wasn’t really a Jobsian success. According to The New York Times, credit is due to Ron Johnson, a star retailing executive at Target who jumped ship to come to Apple and found their retail operation. His opinions “set a framework for Apple’s store strategy,” says the Times, and when Jobs gave him carte blanche to design the stores, it was Johnson who decided “Apple’s retail stores should be big and spacious, a physical embodiment of the Apple brand.”

But good products and merchandising are only half of Apple’s winning strategy; they also have world-class marketing and a faithful following of software developers. Whose department is that? Phil Schiller, SVP of worldwide product marketing, a man so potent within the Apple tribe that he’ll be taking Jobs’ place as the keynote speaker at Macworld in January. He must be doing something right.

And while Jobs may be a visionary, he’s a very different kind of visionary now than he was a decade ago. In the late ’90s, when he took back the helm of his beloved Apple Computer, the world of computing was full of proprietary interfaces, boring hardware, gimmicky software, and utterly backwards attitudes toward the Web. Steve knew better, but no one wanted to listen. So he proved everyone wrong.

Now the personal computing industry follows the Jobs mantra: solid design, intuitive software, Web-oriented operating systems, open-source software, and wireless everything. Not only is Apple on the right track, the entire industry is on the right track, following Apple. He’s not fighting anyone anymore. If he goes, then Apple’s momentum will be carried by the like-minded people who have grown up under him, bolstered by the momentum of the Dells [DELL] and HPs [HP] and Microsofts [MSFT] all of whom are trying to learn his lessons.


Let’s also not forget that not all Jobs’ ideas are stellar ones. As late as October, he refused to acknowledge the viability of the netbook market, saying netbooks are “getting a lot of hype,” but that the niche is one of the “parts of that market that we choose not to play in.” Netbooks are expected to sell between 8 and 11 million units this year, cannibalizing notebook sales. With Apple’s expertise in the small-Internet-device category, you’d think they’d want to tap into that stream of revenue.

In the same interview, Jobs dismissed the potential of an “iPhone Nano,” or smaller-footprint iPhone, decrying traditional cell phone makers for making too many phones. “I think that the traditional game in the phone market has been to produce a voice phone in a hundred different varieties,” he said, affirming Apple won’t make another iPhone version. But what about the people — ahem, people under 21 — who don’t want to carry around a full-blown smartphone, don’t need calendar and all-access email, and just want fun games and apps? They buy phones too. A lot of phones.

Thankfully, Jobs is probably in fine health; he’s probably not going to Macworld because he’s deemed it a waste of the company’s time. He knows the media will come to Apple when they announce new products.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.