Throughout the tech industry this afternoon, people are in shock. And even as word spreads that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is stepping down, those who are Apple's most devoted fans and users are struggling to decide if they should hold on to their faith in the company and its future products.
It's clear that there is no one in the tech world--or even the larger world of business--with a larger and broader influence on their company or their industry. And as the early hit to Apple's stock demonstrates, many are worried that the company without Jobs is a pale comparison of it with him.
"It's a sad day, it's a terrible day for technology," said Leander Kahney, editor of the Cult of Mac blog. "His contribution to culture is massive...He's had such a massive impact on everyone's lives. The products he's pioneered have become as big as the telephone, the car. We're all nerds now...No one can touch him, not even [Bill] Gates."
But as Andy Baio, a technologist and blogger who runs the blog Waxy.org and who spent his afternoon worrying about Jobs' health, put it, "The Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad weren't invented, designed, and marketed by one man."
And as the tech and business communities grapple with what Jobs' departure as CEO means, Baio had this bit of advice to those fretting that Apple's days of being innovation leaders are over: "I hope they give the amazing, talented people at Apple the benefit of the doubt."
Cult of Mac
There's probably never been a company with as many devoted followers as Apple, especially under the two Steve Jobs eras. The very phrase "cult of Mac" sums up the broad cultural impact that Jobs has long had on the company, its products, and the world at large.
Despite the fact that Jobs has been suffering through some well-publicized health issues, for those who are card-carrying members of the cult, Wednesday may well be one of those days that everyone will always be able to remember what they were doing when they heard the news.
"It's nasty shock," Kahney said. "It's still a really nasty surprise. I think people knew it was going to happen, but I think people were holding out hope that it was going to be in the future."
Among the so-called fanboys, there's sure to be consternation about what the Jobs news means. Kahney said he feels that Apple will be fine--indeed, he said, "I think the company is going to be bigger than ever. I think Apple's just on this roller coaster ride, and will continue to dominate tech for the next 10 years, whether [Jobs is] there or not."
But Kahney said he thinks he's alone in feeling that way. Surely investors are worried: In after-hours trading today, Apple's stock was down about 5 percent--meaning about $17.44 billion of lost market capitalization--revealing that Wall Street has serious doubts about whether new CEO Tim Cook can carry on the company's long-running hit parade.
But others think that the fanboys are going to be able to control their fears, especially those who have been around awhile.
"I think the older fanboys, they're much more focused on the culture and the personalities, and the people they love, and the people they love to hate," said Bruce Bruce Damer, who runs the DigiBarn vintage computer museum. And "the younger community just wants the products and the experience, they don't really know about Steve Jobs."
Still, there are countless longtime Apple fans, and for them, Damer said, there's little doubt that the company and the man are forever joined at the hip. Jobs "basically reprinted Apple with the design philosophy [he] adopted in the mid-1970s, and he basically rebooted Apple" after returning to the company in 1996, Damer said.
Jobs' spirit 'will live on in Apple'
Like Kahney, Damer believes that Jobs' many years at the helm cannot have done anything but pound his marketing and design philosophies into the thousands of people who work at the company. And that's not surprising. Damer pointed to Jobs' legendary focus, recalling a story of Jobs' first meeting with venture capitalist Arthur Rock around 1976. "Rock saw this kid," Damer said, "and yet he saw [Jobs'] expression and how sure he was, and Arthur signed the check. And that tells you a lot: "This man [Jobs] knows where he is going and I have to support him," Damer said Rock concluded.
And that laser focus may well be deeply ingrained in today's Apple culture. As Damer put it, "that spirit, the total encompassing spirit of style, design, message, and creating a good feeling in people...will live on in Apple when Steve is gone."
It's hard to argue with that sentiment, at least today. Social networks are being flooded with people's reactions to the Jobs announcement, but there seems to be little worry that the company is going to stop turning out innovative products any time soon. "As far as the [way] the company is run, people are not really worried," said Mike Schramm, an editor of The Unofficial Apple Weblog. "In terms of the fanboys, I don't think there's been a big deal. It's been a bummer, like he was the visionary. But I haven't seen a lot of people really losing faith in the brand."
To be sure, though, it's early days. Schramm pointed out that once people's initial shock wears off, they may well re-evaluate how they feel about the future of Apple, post-Jobs. But he also pointed out that Jobs' departure this time around--as opposed to 1985, when he was fired by then-CEO John Sculley--comes with the company at a zenith of power and financial health, and with Jobs considered nearly a saint within the walls of One Infinite Loop, Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. And because of that, Schramm said he expects every major decision going forward to be run through a "What would Steve Jobs do" filter.
For those that depend on the company's products, and believe that there are no alternatives, though, Wednesday was a scary day.
"For me, it's emotional," said Baio. "I know that Apple will continue to grow and evolve and improve, and make magical products that everyone loves, because it's now baked into their culture. It's in their DNA. [But] I'm not worried that the tools that I use every day, that I'm typing on as we speak, will go away. But I'm very worried about the man whose vision made it possible, who fundamentally transformed the way people see and understand and use technology."