Update 8/25/11: Looks like I was right about this one. I hope I'm right about Apple's future too.
I’ve been thinking about Apple’s future lately from my viewpoint as a fan, a customer, and a shareholder (I have a very comfortable holding of Apple shares in my IRA), and I have come to the conclusion that Steve Jobs isn’t going to come back to the company as a CEO or any other meaningful role.
Last month, Jobs took an indefinite leave of absence from the company he founded and then saved from the brink of destruction. It was the second such medical leave he’d taken in recent years, the last one in 2009 when underwent a liver transplant. That leave lasted six months, a time frame he revealed at the start of his hiatus. However, the circumstances of his most recent leave were much more vague. Here is his letter to employees from January 2011:
At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company.
I have asked Tim Cook to be responsible for all of Apple’s day to day operations. I have great confidence that Tim and the rest of the executive management team will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans we have in place for 2011.
I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy.
I don’t intend to speculate on Jobs’ personal life or invade his privacy, but I have a hunch that unlike his previous absence, this time Jobs’ leave is not temporary, but permanent. One of the biggest fears of fans of a healthy Apple Co. has been that Jobs’ admittedly serious medical condition could leave the company suddenly without the legendarily fearless and focused leader whose vision has saved Apple “singlehandedly” (which is perhaps an exaggeration and does not give enough credit to the team he has surrounded himself with). Many people fear that an Apple without Jobs would be rudderless and eventually become just another tech company producing mediocre products and focused on maximizing profits to the detriment of product design and quality. In other words, a return to Apple of the mid-Nineties.
Whether this is likely or not—and I tend to think it isn’t likely because people like Jonathan Ives, Tim Cook, and others at Apple are just as responsible for Apple’s amazing products and marketing as Jobs—the perception is what matters to Wall Street. And if Jobs were to leave suddenly, investors would abandon the stock in droves and the company would love the confidence of the market and the media alike. (Under Jobs’ tenure, every announcement from Apple is greeted by receptive and cynical media alike as a veritable pronouncement from upon high; the media coverage of the company is worthy of study in academia.)
But what if the company were able to prove over the long term that not only could it survive a post-Jobs era, but thrive?
I think Steve Jobs phrased his departure letter in an open-ended way so as not to panic the public at his absence, but for them to be able to say eventually, “Look at how well the company has performed in his absence. It doesn’t matter if he settles down to a well-deserved retirement.”
For as much as we would all selfishly love for Steve Jobs—or any other favored producer of the things we love—to continue performing their magic for us indefinitely, at some point we have to be willing to wish them well and let them enjoy the fruits of their labor.
I don’t particularly relish the idea of a Steve-less Apple, but I think that the day has already come. And I think Apple will be just fine.
Photo credit: Matt Buchanan via Wikimedia Commons.