An Apple without Steve Jobs

Apple now faces a future without its co-founder and icon. Where does the company go from here?

commentary When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs stepped down from his role as CEO two months ago, the immediate question "was what happens to Apple next?" With Jobs' passing yesterday, the company now faces that scenario.

From an outsider's perspective, the near-term seems clear. The company says it has a succession plan, which it enacted in August at Jobs' request, installing Tim Cook as CEO. The company also has a new iPhone--its hottest money making product--launching next week, followed a week later with what is likely to be another record setting quarter.

But what people wonder about is what happens years from now, or maybe sooner. Can Apple keep its mojo as the tech company that made an incredible comeback and affected change in nearly every industry it got into during the past decade? Can Cook carve out his own place in the company's history, going beyond the role of changing how Apple puts together its products, into a role that defines what they are and how they're perceived?

That's a big unknown in part because Jobs has been Apple's front man since his return to the company. While Cook filled in during Jobs' medical leaves and ran the company's day to day operations for years, to the public he's now just beginning to get attention as the one who is going to lead Apple. There's no more "Steve will still be involved with strategic decisions" to point at when something is deemed a success or a failure. And with future products and services, Apple now faces scrutiny of how much of a hand people think Jobs did or did not play in whatever long-term vision that was set up before he stepped down.

Ultimately this is a huge, finely run company with many strong executives. But the panache, the "vision thing" will be hard to replace. The loss of a founding executive can take years to have an influence for the negative, and it's typically a more subtle one -- the loss of energy, the loss of drive, the MBAs making decisions rather than the engineers. Will it happen at Apple? Impossible to say, but those are the risks in the years to come.

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What could Apple look like three years from now?

One of the first places people looked for any signs of change was the company's iPhone event earlier this week. Critics panned both Cook's inaugural performance, and the product itself, as dull, in part because they were comparing it with a certain ideal Jobs has come to make us expect. And the truth is, Cook may never get to get out of that shadow.

But as Tuesday's event re-enforced, and perhaps we all should have picked up on a little sooner, is that Apple's come to lean on its other figureheads to make the pitch, especially Phil Schiller and Scott Forstall, the company's top marketing and iOS software executives, respectively. Schiller's been Jobs' right hand man in product demonstrations, even carrying the Macworld and WWDC keynotes in 2009 while Jobs was on medical leave. Forstall, meanwhile, has gone from helping to craft Mac OS X to becoming the one in charge of running Apple's mobile software efforts, which have become a commanding portion of the company's incoming revenue stream. There's also deep executive bench with the recently promoted Eddy Cue who heads up the company's Internet and software service, and Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice president of operations.

Perhaps of the most interest in the post-Jobs era though is Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of industrial design. Jobs is credited with pulling Ive from designing prototypes of products that were going nowhere and bringing him into the inner circle of the company's design efforts. The two men were also said to have had a mutual admiration and taste for design that's driven the company to create some of its most iconic products. With Jobs no longer a part of that creative process, does Ive stay or strike out on his own?

There's also curiosity into who Apple decides to replace as its retail chief, a part of the company's business that started with just a handful of stores, and now stretches to 357 locations around the world. A big part of the credit for that goes to Ron Johnson, the company's retail chief, who earlier this year announced that he was departing to become J.C. Penney's CEO, a job he begins next month. Apple has not yet said who his successor will be.

Finally, there's the uncertain future when it comes to Apple's voice. People have come to look to Jobs to set the tone of the company, which went from a scrappy upstart to a giant, yet whose CEO and co-founder would still respond personally to e-mails from customers.

Because of Jobs, you could tell you were reading something from Apple almost immediately, from the verbiage in a legal filing to a document like the App Store guidelines . Jobs would also occasionally write technology missives posted to Apple's Web Site, most recently "Thoughts on Flash," an utter take down of Adobe's Flash technology , which Jobs chided for being flawed, and a hindrance towards moving things forward. In truth I don't see Cook penning something like Thoughts on Flash, but perhaps I don't know him well enough.

One thing that's for sure is that Jobs has left Apple with a foundation to build on its successes. Still ahead of it is a new campus set to be completed by 2015, a continually aggressive plan to expand its retail stores into new territories, and a digital empire that's set up to sell an ever increasing amount of music, books, movies, TV shows, and software.

What comes after that, only Apple knows.

 

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