Thursday, October 06, 2011

On the Passing of Steve Jobs

On the day after the passing of Steve Jobs, it's popular to say what an incredible innovator and pitchman and pioneer he was.  And he was all of those things.  It's also popular to say that his legacy, in the form of Apple Computer, puts him into a league of his own in terms of accomplishments in affecting the technology industry, and society at large.  His importance as an American businessperson cannot be overstated.

Looking ahead though, it's not difficult to harbor grave fears for the long-term future of Apple.  That company lived and died with Steve Jobs, and the truth of that is evidenced by the financial performance and market capitalization of Apple during his periods of tenure versus its performance in his absence.

What made Apple remarkable was Steve Jobs.  That's easy to say but perhaps harder to understand.  Jobs had an unyielding sense of what made a product great, and an almost pathological inability to tolerate anything which fell short of his standards.  He set the bar at Apple, and continued to raise it higher and higher over time.  He was uninterested by bureaucracy, deadlines, investor expectations, or anything else that would result in Apple delivering a less-than-perfect product.  Was he always right?  No.  But, any deficiency in an Apple product - especially a new one - could never be blamed on an attitude of "just push it out now, we'll fix it in the next version."  That is the singular quality of Steve Jobs which, paired with his remarkable ability to envision technology operating in such a way as to be compelling to huge swaths of people, resulted in Apple becoming the largest, most valuable company in the world.  Steve Jobs was bigger than everything other than God, and there's a good likelihood that even God uses an iPad.

And now that's gone.  There's no-one left at Apple who made the name for themselves that Jobs did - there couldn't be.  What does that mean?  Can they really maintain that level of inspiration among Apple employees, and that fierce dedication to quality above all else?  Can they really continue to fan the flames of true innovation indefinitely, as Jobs had, or are we in for a long future of repackaged/reshuffled products in the catalog as it appears today?

To me, this more than anything, will be his legacy.  A leader has many obligations and duties, and one of them is succession.  Has Jobs adequately instilled a sustainable culture at Apple, and has he done a good job at surrounding himself with people who can seamlessly carry on his vision and prepare the next generation of leadership, indefinitely?  Has he really built an Infinite Loop in Cupertino?  Only time will tell.

In the mean time, we will mourn the passing of a technology icon - a man without whom the world as we know it would be a lot worse.  Rest in peace, Steve.