Year One AS (After Steve)

Here we are in Year One After Steve. As always on such an occasion, there are retrospectives and analysis as to what Apple and the industry are like without his presence. And, as always, the results are mixed and the analysis varies depending on perspective. My opinion is (probably unsurprisingly) that Steve’s passing has perhaps given Apple some pause, but I’m not convinced it has slowed them down any. Apple was going to have to face this eventuality no matter what, and they did take some some steps towards preparing for this event. Were they as effective as they could have been? Probably not. I believe that there was more that they could have done, and a different way for them to handle the transition.

No Big Leaps: So What?

I’ve seen some retrospectives bemoan the fact that Apple hasn’t made any giant leaps in current product, or introduced something completely new, since Steve’s death. My answer: so what? Apple didn’t “change the world” each and every year, even though some would have you believe that (including Apple). Consider the real, meaningful product advances: the iPhone came out in 2007. The next ‘big leap’ was the MacBook Air, which came out in early 2008, one year later. But then we have a 2-year gap before the iPad appeared (in 2010). Seriously, nothing much truly changed in that period. Yes, there were upgrades. Yes, there were updates. Yes, there were advances. But the iPhone 3G and the 3GS were evolutions on the original iPhone. Were they “amazing”? Sure, you could say they were. Were they great products? No question. But none of them revolutionized anything, they just helped maintain momentum.

What truly new product has come out since the original iPad in 2010? Nothing. Sure, there have been some incredible advances. The phone got smaller and lighter. The iPhone, iPad and MacBook gained higher-resolutions displays. The newer iPads were basically iPads, just better. The MacBook Air evolved and improved. They were upgrades. They weren’t revolutions. The retina display in the iPad 2 was certainly incredible, but it didn’t fundamentally change the appeal and utility of the device. Increases in speed and performance helped. But, again, none of that altered the appeal and utility.

To expect any company to completely alter the landscape of some part of the computing and technology world annually is unrealistic. I wouldn’t expect it of anyone. The fact that nothing truly new has appeared really shouldn’t come as a surprise, and shouldn’t be viewed with disappointment. Even Apple, for all of their vaunted innovation, rarely does that.

But What Could Be Different?

In the 2 years prior to Steve’s death, Apple had already started a transition away from Steve and toward a new team. That transition got more serious in late 2010 and into 2011 as the severity of Steve’s health issues became clearer. It isn’t that Apple’s senior leadership carried on with “business as usual”. They knew the transition was going to happen. It was inevitable.

As an outsider, I’m not sure that Apple did as good a job as they could have. One main flaw I see was (either deliberately or inadvertently) that Apple ended up with Tim Cook largely becoming the face of Apple. It isn’t that Tim isn’t a capable and intelligent individual. He certainly is, and it was his plan that got Apple’s manufacturing and supply chain sorted out. While the supply chain is overlooked by some, it is an integral part of Apple’s success. Their ability to manufacture to the required standards, and with the necessary speed, has made their short turn-around between announcement and availability possible. That in turn allows Apple to announce and ship, without the excessive delay between those 2 events (hey RIM! Microsoft! You hear that?). Instant gratification combined with building on the hype appears to be a key element in Apple’s success.

Where Apple could have done a better job is in putting a team forward. It would reinforce the reality that no single person can replace someone like Steve Jobs. Yes, the announcements are handled by multiple people (mainly Tim, Scott Forstall, Phil Schiller and a few others). But that team needs to take the stage as a team. It may seem trivial, but it is important in terms of perception. Having Tim open and close the announcements solo mirrors Steve’s script. As such, many see Tim as the new face of Apple. The media certainly does, and it seems to result in unfair comparisons between Steve and Tim. Apple’s playbook for presenting new product was predicated on Steve’s presence and personality. Apple needs to develop a new playbook, and build a new script, for handling these events. Right now, too much is familiar, and not necessarily in a good way.

One person missing from this equation, and the person responsible for much of the look and feel of the physical product, is Jonathan Ive. Now, maybe Jony doesn’t like to do presentations. Maybe he isn’t an effective presenter. But Jony has been a key element of Apple’s success, and frankly, he’s been invisible for the past year or so. That isn’t good, and it isn’t reassuring. Apple needs to find a way to get Jony more visible, and to do a better job of highlighting the man as well as the talent he brings.

Now Let’s Stop With Looking Back

For better or worse, Steve is gone, and Apple will have to go on without him. The Apple we know, and will see unfold, isn’t going to be the same Apple we’ve seen to date. It shouldn’t be. It is now being lead by different people, and they have different ideas, different visions and different beliefs. Do most of us miss Steve? Certainly, we do. Will Apple make mistakes without him? Yes. But they also made some mistakes with him. Fortunately, his successes overwhelmingly outnumbers the errors. That’s the way things work if you are successful: you succeed more often than you fail.

But Apple will be different. They will do things in ways that some will find “wrong”, not because they are wrong, but because Apple is both a different company because Steve isn’t there, and because Apple is in a different space. They aren’t the underdogs, they are one of the leaders. They have mainstream customers, not just loyalists. And Apple will change because of that. It would have happened even if Steve were still with us.