Sad Apple

I’m contemplating what Apple’s latest news and its anemic, closed MacBook Pro signal for the company and its direction forward. I posted the below five years ago, five months after Steve Jobs took his final medical leave of absence and two months before he resigned as CEO.

I wish Tim were doing a better job at proving me wrong.

I am not an expert on Apple. I say that right up front because there’s no special knowledge or insider relationships I’m hoarding, no reason that people should keep asking me these Apple questions. Yeah, I have an Air and an increasingly dodgy iPhone 3GS with iOS5 (see sarcastic tweetstream to match), but that’s about it. So I am at best another fool on the hill, watching suns rise and fall and thinking about them in the context of what I’ve learned over the years in spite of my best efforts.

The number one question I get, after “does the 4GS really fix the antenna,” has been: what will happen without Steve? Will Apple continue to be innovative, to prosper, to preserve those margins and grow its market?

My short-form opinion is that sadly, I doubt it.

It’s not a shortage of creativity. Apple has some of the most brilliant, innovative, creative people on the planet. Steve brought his own additional light here, but the loss of his specific creative contributions is made up by a surfeit of really clever stuff struggling to rise to the top and get implemented.

What is now missing is the integration of intense vision, leadership, and the power to make them happen. We will see, I fear, a slow succumbing to the quarterly pressures of an ongoing business. What Steve brought was a core belief that success would follow excellence, and the willingness to gamble a company on that model of causality. Putting that attitude at the helm spread an innovation-protecting umbrella over the whole company, giving the organization confidence that doing the right thing for the users would be an attitude supported from the top down.

Do you think that a normal, established company would even dream of developing something like the iPhone or iPad? Nah, that’s nuts. There’s no proof that it will sell and it will cost a fortune to find out. Instead, they’d either buy a startup who did it already, or they’d dump the idea and work on normal day-to-day projects like lowering costs, growing disk drives, and doing all the other conventional things that companies do. It needed a leader with the power, track record, and charm (well, whatever Steve used as his kind of charm) to muscle these absurdly unproven, expensive programs through development, and then through the endless polishing to make them right. A leader who also had the vision that it was worth doing.

Apple retains extraordinary strengths of vision, leadership, and power, but they’re unlikely to be housed within a single leader again. This multi-billion-dollar company is going to be hard-pressed to retain its ability to steer against the constant winds of quarterly targets and conventional knowledge without that unique guidance.

Tim, please prove me wrong.