Apple’s share price shrugged as though the resignation of the company’s visionary leader hardly mattered. That surprised me. Of course it helps that Steve Jobs will still be chairman–though how active a chairman, and for how long, remain to be seen. And the top of the company is full of exceptionally talented people: that’s clear. But it seems to me that Jobs’s personality and the astonishing success of his company are as tightly integrated as…well, you know what.
Jobs did something entirely remarkable at Apple not once but twice, and that is counting conservatively. He did it partly by being brilliant, but also by being unafraid to be wrong. “Stay foolish,” as he said in his wonderful Stanford commencement speech–the one thing on Jobs that everybody ought to be reading right now, though not necessarily for life lessons. “Stay foolish” is good advice to give to a genius, maybe not such good advice to give to those of us with talents that are less than astounding. He was a notoriously hands-on boss, in many ways a tyrant. Again and again, he bet his company (who else’s company was it?) on instinct. No successor will have that freedom.
In the end Jobs’s top priority was probably not to run the most successful computer company. Mainly, he cared about making the best computers. (“The only problem with Microsoft” he said in 1996, before Apple’s rebirth, “is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste.”) Of course, making the kind of devices that Jobs wanted to use himself was eventually a formula for fabulous success, but it did not have to be that way. He wasn’t worried about what customers wanted–or, more precisely, thought they wanted. Market research is for also-rans. People don’t know what they want until it’s in front of them. As Jobs told Fortune in 2000:
[I]t’s hard for [customers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Take desktop video editing. I never got one request from someone who wanted to edit movies on his computer. Yet now that people see it, they say, “Oh my God, that’s great!”
Even if you suppose that the assembled talent at Apple is sufficient to make up for Jobs’s departure–a heroic assumption, I’d say–you need to understand that Tim Cook, the new CEO, and his team will not be able to run the company the way Jobs did. Magnificent self-indulgence, albeit married to ferocious self-discipline, is out. Their first concern cannot be to make the simplest, coolest, most enchanting and seamless devices: it will be to avoid wrecking a phenomenal enterprise that somebody else built. That is a crushing burden that Jobs never had to carry. I wish them well, but the fact that Jobs is a hard act to follow is the least of his successors’ problems.