Just weeks after Apple leapfrogged Exxon Mobil to become the world’s most valuable company – for a few moments, anyhow – the man who orchestrated its stratospheric ascent is stepping down.
Steve Jobs announced in a short letter yesterday that he was no longer able to meet his “duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO”. Although he did not explain why, it is hard not to suspect that his health is involved, following a liver transplant in 2009. Media outlets have often insinuated that he has not enjoyed a smooth recovery.
Those guessing games are now irrelevant; the real issue is whether the company will remain an industry leader without Jobs at its helm.
Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976. It went on to release the Macintosh, the computer that popularised the mouse and graphical interface (a significant improvement on controlling computers via esoteric textual commands). He left the company soon after because of a power tussle, only to return in 1996, when the company was struggling and Microsoft was touting a revamped Windows operating system. The following years saw the iPod, iTunes and then the iPhone not only fix Apple’s finances, but also transform the music and mobile computing markets.
Admittedly not every Apple venture has been an unqualified success. The company’s desktop computers and laptops are popular but do not dominate the market. And while iPad was touted as a revolution in the way we consume media, it is unclear whether it will reshape the market for books, newspapers and movies to the extent that iTunes has impacted music.
From an operational standpoint, there is no doubt that the company will enjoy an easy transition of power. It has been preparing for this eventuality since Jobs temporarily stepped down over those health issues two years ago.
Jobs is credited with building a close team of people all sharing his outlook, such as Jonathan Ive, an industrial designer, and Tim Cook, the chief operating officer who has been named as Jobs’ successor. But even if they were to follow some supposed Jobbesian precepts, it is unclear whether they will be able to foresee the needs and desires of consumers in the way that Jobs did. Indeed, it stands to reason that they may not want to, and will seek to put their own stamp on the company.
The reality of Jobs’ departure will hit home in the coming months. An updated iPhone is rumoured to launch in the autumn, and absent from the keynote stage will be a tall man in a black turtleneck, speaking with unabashed wonder about the latest marvel that he and his engineers have been able to conjure.