Life After Steve

With Steve Jobs deciding to hang it up, there has been plenty of noise about “what happens next”, “what could happen next” and comparisons to other founders leaving their respective companies. On Forbes, there is fretting about whether a guy known for supply-chain brilliance will do more harm than good. On Ars Technica, there is a outline of other technology giants and the aftermath of a founder leaving. There has been the general meme that around the fortunes of Ford and Disney, where both did fine after their founders left.

First, let’s address the issue of Tim Cook. The Forbes article, linked above, overlooks something about Tim: he’s been working for and with Steve for some time.  The article wonders (expects?) that having someone not as steeped in the technology and the design elements of the company may try to take the company in new and potentially disastrous directions. The author makes a broad statement that Apple is just a “hardware company”, overlooking the fact that the software is as important as the hardware. Without it, Apple would not done nearly as well. Is Tim Cook the same as Steve Jobs? No. But then, Tim also isn’t alone. Steve relied on John Ive for the industrial design elements of new Apple products. Apple also has a cadre of talented hardware and software designers who would have contributed, and who also helped make a difference. This isn’t the case of one person having total control, and I can’t believe the Tim would be foolish enough to try to do it on his own. I think he’s smarter than that.

The other thing to look at is the past, where other founders have left their companies. The Ars article is interesting, but it overlooks a few things. First, the stock prices of Microsoft and Intel got hammered at a time when all stock prices where declining. Second, Scott McNealy wasn’t exactly an effective CEO for Sun in the last few years of his tenure. He wasted millions of dollars trying to built something to compete with Windows PC’s, money that could have been better spent elsewhere. He was closed-minded when it came to Linux. Frankly, McNealy over-stayed his welcome by about 4 years. He was capable at the start, and the right guy for the job, but Sun outgrew him and he didn’t move on. The Ars article does make one very keen observation, though: Apple cannot just coast on what it has now, making minor changes and tweaks. Apple does have to keep moving forward, and get new products out there.

Keep in mind that this isn’t the first time Steve has departed from Apple. The first time around, it was a bit of a disaster. A succession of CEOs with flawed visions nearly killed the company. When Steve left, Apple was run by Sculley, who didn’t pay any attention to how Apple really worked, how Steve worked, and didn’t know where the real value in Apple products were. Eventually, Apple brought Steve back. This time around, things are different. Tim Cook is leading a team of people who have been working alongside Steve, in some cases, for 2 decades. There aren’t newcomers. These are people who have been immersed in, and nurturing, the Apple corporate culture.

So, is Apple in trouble? Are there risks, now that Steve is gone? Sure there are. There is always the chance, and the temptation, to milk the current product set for all its worth. That could come to pass, but I think that’s unlikely. There is also a chance that the “next big thing” could turn into a flop. Apple has had an incredible run so far, but let’s face it: every company puts out a dud now and again. The first AppleTV wasn’t exactly a barn burner. The G4 Cube wasn’t exactly a sales success. Some editions of the iPod have had, at best, a lukewarm reception. What Apple has done a good job of, though, is killing or completely rebuilding the mistakes quickly. Rather than trying to tune and tweak a failed or failing product, they either dump it or effectively start from scratch, but taking lessons away while doing it. The G4 Cube was an artistic hit, but a sales disaster. Apple learned lessons from that, and applied them to the Mac Mini. The first AppleTV was described as a “hobby”, so expectations were pretty low. But that didn’t stop Apple from learning lessons from it, and bringing out the second generation AppleTV, which has been a hit. Various shapes and styles of iPod have come and gone, and some have hung on longer than others. As long as the team at Apple continue to do this sort of thing, then a flop isn’t necessarily fatal to the company or its image.

Steve’s departure will signal changes, and maybe some of those are overdue. Steve was brilliant, but he did have his blindspots. He seems to have an almost irrational aversion to buttons on devices. Keeping it to the bare minimum is good, but taking it to an extreme (while an interesting experiment) just makes designers have to contort things in a way that isn’t always useful. Like it or not, a physical keyboard on a smartphone isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you type a lot (and I mean a lot). Even after using iPhones for about 3 years, I know that I’ll still type about 5x faster on a Blackberry than I ever will on the iPhone soft keyboard. I can get by on the iPhone, but a physical, integrated keyboard would be useful.

While Flash appears to be in a bit of decline, it isn’t going away anytime soon. Maybe its time to stop fighting Adobe and start working with them to make Flash work properly on iOS. It is the one hole in the iOS story, and while I’m not a big fan of Flash (it seems to be one of the bigger sources of grief for me, and not just MacOS, but Windows and Linux. If it isn’t chewing up a ton of CPU, it’s crashing), I recognize that too many web sites rely on it for Flash to be ignored. As of right now, Adobe’s shares would be worth about $12 billion, so maybe Apple should open it’s wallet and just buy them, and then work with them to figure this out.

Java is another hole in the iOS story, and maybe its time Apple embraced it as an alternative to Objective-C, supporting both in parallel. Allowing developers to build apps in Java, and releasing them through the App Store, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Allowing some kind of JVM in Safari for applets wouldn’t be the end of the world (particularly since it would be sandboxed, and wouldn’t have access to all the iOS features), and would again open up web sites that use the technology.

Apple should at least look at licensing MacOS and iOS to other device manufacturers. That being said, it should be done with very, very, very tight restrictions on what these licensees can do. First, I would include a final say in all physical designs for Apple. If Apple doesn’t like your hardware design, it isn’t going out the door. Second, the license would have to include an “absolutely no modification of the system” clause. No customization of icons, user interface elements, default applications or other “features”. Last, Apple should ensure that these competitors are limiting their overlap in Apple’s market. The last time Apple licensed Macintosh technology, the end result was competitors taking the limited share of the market Apple had. It didn’t result in expanded marketshare for Macintosh. I suspect that, in the end, the time is still not right for 3rd-party MacOS or iOS devices, but at least test the waters.

I think that Apple should also look at a 7″ iPad. I like my iPad, but for some activities and in some situations, I would like to have a smaller one. I like to read books on my iPad, but I’ll be honest and say I prefer the form-factor of my Kindle or Galaxy Tab when it comes to reading books. There are times when I’m out and about where a 10″ tablet is just a bit big, and a 7″ would fit better in a coat pocket. Steve seems dead set against an iPad that fits, size-wise, between the iPhone/iPod Touch and the current iPad. I still think Apple should also look at rebranding the iPod Touch as the iPad Nano (and then introduce an iPad Mini, in the 7″ range).

I fully expect Apple to continue to improve or build on what they have. That is probably a given. But I also hope they are willing to explore areas or go directions that Steve didn’t want to go. I do expect Apple to continue to release new and interesting product, following in Steve’s footsteps. Just because Steve is gone doesn’t mean that others don’t have brilliant ideas of their own.