Is Apple better or worse without Steve Jobs? Credit: Image credit: photocritical / Shutterstock.com

Image credit: photocritical / Shutterstock.com

Business Management

Is Apple better or worse without Steve Jobs?

Four years ago today Steve Jobs, founder and cult leader of Apple died. The world descended into mourning. Flags at the company headquarters in Cupertino, California dropped to half-mast. Post-it-notes and bitten apples appeared outside Apple stores. And across the globe individuals performed candlelit vigils in front of iPads.

This was the kind of public grieving normally reserved for political heads of state or religious leaders - certainly not people who ran companies. And as last month’s documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” observed, it was a bizarre phenomenon.

This was after all, someone these people had never met, who produced products that fundamentally isolated them. But still, these products really do inspire love. And love – like the personality of Steve Jobs in lifetime – is hardly rational.

Quickly, the biggest looming question became whether the company could survive without him. And broadly speaking, opinion is still largely divided into two camps:

The first says, Apple can never be as innovative or produce as high quality goods as it did with Jobs at the helm. The second says, now Jobs is gone the company can finally be open, accountable and diverse.

Even now it generates an intense quasi-religious debate. I mean look at the fuss and furore over the pencil at the latest Apple launch. The Jobs-ites preach in one direction. The Cook-ites sermonise in the other. And by the end both are spitting blood and feathers and generally spoiling for a fight…

The bizarre deification of Steve Jobs?

No real human being can live up to the kind of god status that Jobs achieved. As Abby Francis, mobile expert at Mobiles.co.uk puts it: “Steve Jobs is seen by many as the reason why Apple became the most valuable company in the world. But Apple’s global success rests on multiple shoulders, so to say it would be better with him still at the helm, over Tim Cook or the likes of growing talent such as Jonathan Ive, would be doing them a disservice.”

This said, “I think Steve Jobs was a great mentor,” explains Vinay Gupta, Senior Analyst in a leading global research and advisory firm.

“Even though he is not there, his teachings are in the DNA of the company. This leads me to believe that Apple is still the same ship which Jobs built, it just has a new navigator, who had full confidence of Jobs.”

Even this sounds quite religious. But there is absolutely no denying Steve Jobs’ incredible influence over Apple’s past and of course – to a lesser extent – its future. But what are the nuts and bolts of the case?

There is lot more clarity without Jobs. “New CEO Tim Cook’s softer, mild mannered approach to public relations and marketing has definitely made the company less secretive and more approachable, a departure from the very things that made Apple cool and mysterious under Jobs,” suggests Zafar Jamati, account executive at technology PR agency Stone Junction.

“I think Apple under Cook will embrace morality better than it could have if Jobs returned to the helm,” he adds. This includes all the furore over Chinese worker rights, robotic automation of production plants and corporate social responsibility. “This will be much better managed using Cook’s diplomatic style in lieu of Jobs’ autocratic one.”

What about the details?

Senior Analyst, Vinay Gupta points to four core ways Apple has changed under Cook. He describes these as: diversity in decision making; a new found openness to acquisitions and collaborations; making the company more investor friendly; and donating more to humanitarian projects. He sees these changes as an “evolution for survival” that comes with any change in leadership.

Andy Baldin, VP at LANDESK isn’t entirely sure this is all positive though and is keen to stress that brand, product and innovation have suffered. However, as none of this is cut and dried, we’ve listed everything in a little more detail below.

-          Diversity

“Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, and let’s accept the fact that he never can be, neither does he attempt to be,” says Gupta. “He recognises that he is not the product visionary Steve was,” which in turn means the “most important change Apple has seen” is “diversity”.

This means acknowledging the contributions from people like Jonathan Ive (Chief Design Officer), Craig Federighi (SVP Software Engineering), Jeff Williams (SVP Operations), and Dan Riccio (SVP Hardware Engineering). “These are people with dissimilar traits complementing each other and Tim Cook,” explains Gupta. “Something similar like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Baldwin does not see this in a good light though. “Apple has always attracted the biggest talents,” he says, “many of which have pretty big egos. But all were kept in check, with Jobs running the ship in the public eye. Today, Dre, Jimmy Iovine, Marc Newson and Jony Ive are generating their own coverage.”

-          Acquisitions

Tim Cook has acquired more companies in four years (33) than Steve Jobs did since 1997 (32). This has included the most high profile, Beats Electronics, for $3 billion in 2014. As Gupta puts it: “No one can remain isolated in this globalised world and same is true with Apple.”

“If Jobs was alive Apple wouldn’t be buying in ideas and innovation,” though argues Baldin. “When Jobs was running the ship he saw acquisitions as undermining the firm’s ability to innovate. Cook thinks differently.”

“The vast majority of Apple’s recent acquisitions are absorbed into the Borg-like Apple hive. While Jobs likely wouldn’t have had an issue with these,” he adds. The company’s biggest acquisition of all — the Beats Electronics purchase — remains a distinctly un-Apple head-scratcher.   

Apple has also tied up with IBM to “develop vertical specific apps which can help improve adoption of Apple iPhones and iPads significantly,” suggests Gupta. “This also indicates an acceptance that Apple may lack vertical expertise but are open to collaborate with people who have it.”

-          Innovation 

But does bringing outsiders in, mean innovation is lost? Baldin thinks so: “One of Job’s qualities was that he took risks and developed innovative new products. The only risk under Cook is the Apple Watch. And it would have been out last year or the year before.”

“Technically Siri arrived while Jobs was still at Apple, the day before he died. But while Siri remains a great concept, its technology and integration with other services has been overtaken by both Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now. Jobs’ was a perfectionist; the idea of coming in last in this category would devastate him.”

Yet it was not all foresight on Jobs’ part. As Abby Francis, mobile expert at Mobiles.co.uk puts it “Jobs revolutionised a stagnant market when he successfully launched the iPad in 2010. Smaller tablets were a different story, though, as Jobs was initially hesitant to adapt to the trend.”

Jobs was convinced that consumers wouldn’t be interested in 7 inch tablets, she adds. And the same is true for large screen phones, with “Jobs dismissing phablets as impractical”.

-          Products

“If Jobs was still at the helm he would maintain a trim product line, releasing a one size fits all iPhone annually. Instead Cook rolled out a series of colourful iPhones alongside its premium 5S device, and last year it launched two models with different screen sizes, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus,” says Baldin.

“While the iPhone 6 Plus is excellent, it’s unwieldy because it’s almost impossible to use one-handed. If Steve Jobs were alive, the iPhone wouldn’t have changed the size of its screen as he notably said he’d found the perfect size for the iPhone screen and Apple would be closer to a credit-card thin iPhone.”

Yet although the iPhone was a game changer it wasn’t a perfect product in its first iteration. As Francis reminds us it came without some basic functionality such as copy and paste.

“It also arrived without the App Store – launched in 2008 – as Jobs wasn’t keen on third app development through third parties. Initially Jobs wanted to keep all iOS apps web based meaning they’d have to be created in HTML, CSS and Javascript. Today, App Store sales amount to $5 billion.”

As Steve Jobs did not like the large phone sizes these were not released. Yet these devices are now hugely popular in Asia.

-          Brand

“Cook has changed the way Apple names its products, meaning he hasn’t stuck to the “I” prefix at all, shirking the branding that has been pervasive at the company since iMac in 1998,” says Baldin. “If Steve Jobs were running Apple today, the Apple Watch would have been called iWatch.”

This might be true but it certainly hasn’t stopped people buying the product. Surely this is something only the real zealots would really care about?

-          Humanitarianism

“Jobs philosophy was that Apple’s products enrich people’s life and probably that is the best that Jobs could do,” says Gupta. “Apple as a company was involved in few humanitarian projects but Jobs himself was never a big contributor. Tim Cook changed that and Apple now supports large humanitarian projects across the globe namely Product Red with Bono and Bobby to fight AIDS.”

This is an interesting point and may be more helpful to the brand in the wider sense than religiously sticking to the letter “i” as a naming convention?

-          Investors

“Apple under Tim Cook has evolved to be more investor friendly,” says Gupta. Apple has announced that the company will return $200 billion of capital to shareholders by end of March 2017.  It has also increased the quarterly dividend by 11%, payable on May 14, 2015.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with keeping investors happy…

So what can we make of all this?

Overall, the company has certainly deviated slightly from its founder’s principles but we will never know the extent to which these principles were sustainable in the long run. In fact, all the things that made Steve Jobs a strong leader also stood against him when he worked at his second company NeXT.  

Apple will always be strongly associated with Steve Jobs but like any company, it needs to modify, diversify and progress to stay relevant in the global marketplace. At present Tim Cook does seem to be doing that. And surely that is all that really matters?

 

Further reading:

Apple: The legacy of Steve Jobs’ ‘inspirational’ leadership

Steve Jobs: The tech bully poster-boy

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Kathryn Cave

Editor at IDG Connect

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