eWEEK at 30: Apple Strives to Carry on Steve Jobs' Legacy of Innovation

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2014-02-26
 
 
 

eWEEK at 30: Apple Strives to Carry on Steve Jobs' Legacy of Innovation


Much like the biblical Moses, Steve Jobs brought an entire culture out of a wilderness and into a new Promised Land.

More effectively than anybody else in his 56-year lifetime, the late Apple co-founder and on-and-off CEO looked at IT from a user's standpoint and productized it in ways nobody else had imagined.

Before Jobs came on the scene in the late 1970s, computer user interfaces were mostly strings of words on a screen, phones didn't respond well or consistently to voice commands, animated movies were glorified paintings, and the music industry was run by radio stations and a few large record labels as it had been for generations.

By the time he died on Oct. 5, 2011, Jobs arguably had changed the world more thoroughly than any nonpolitical figure in his lifetime. In the two and a half years since then, nobody yet has shown the potential or aptitude for progressive IT thought creativity that Jobs and his company brought to PCs (Macintosh and iPad), music (iPod and iTunes), smartphones (iPhone), movies (Pixar) and online retail (App Store).

In this post-Jobs era, the No. 1 question on many people's minds remains: Can Apple continue to invent, design and market products as successfully as it has in the last 30 years?

Because Jobs was such a singular force, most observers seem to be skeptical that the company can continue at its high level without him. In all fairness, few—if any—companies could withstand the loss of such a visionary and survive in the same way.

The fact remains: Apple has not come out with a truly ground-breaking new product since the fall of 2011, when it launched the iPhone 4S with the Siri voice command interface the day before Jobs died. It has released incrementally improved iPhones, iPads and Macintosh laptops.

A smartwatch is in development, eWEEK has been told, but it's been delayed for various reasons. A new television product, the company's second, is expected to be unveiled soon, but it remains to be seen as to whether those products can move the needle of innovation beyond where Apple's already high standards have been established.

When it comes to innovation in the past four years, it's difficult for any company to compete with what Google is doing in terms of its own projects—driverless autos, wearable computing, space-related programs and robotics, for only a few examples.

Apple plays in none of those arenas at this time. But many computer industry observers believe Apple has to surprise people again if it wants to retain its flair for innovation from the Macintosh, iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad launch days.

Without Jobs, Apple lacks not only a true long-range visionary but a front man who commands a high level of respect from customers and media folks. Jobs wasn't a powerful public speaker, but he was a showman and a salesman par excellence—someone absolutely focused on his company's image and the mission of making Apple the No. 1 company of any kind in the world. He was able to accomplish this lofty goal not once, but at least twice during his career at Apple.

Jobs taught IT people—and the world of business innovation—that no matter how outstanding and progressive a consumer product may be, it's dead in the water unless it is intuitive to use. It also helps if the product is actually fun to use. Users do not have a lot of patience with something they do not know, and neither did Jobs, thus he was perfectly attuned for his mission in life.

 

eWEEK at 30: Apple Strives to Carry on Steve Jobs' Legacy of Innovation


I cannot think of a single IT leader during 19 years in this business who said that he or she hasn't been influenced in some way by Jobs—whether it was for or against his management style (and he did manage using fear, no question about it), marveling at his passion for clean design and product quality or admiring his loyalty for people he respected.

Apple's future without Jobs is anybody's guess, but the people who knew him best—his close friends and fellow Apple colleagues—have their own beliefs that warrant some consideration.

One well-chronicled opinion from one of Jobs' best buddies and fellow IT billionaires, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, made news in August 2013. When asked by CBS journalist Charlie Rose what he thought Apple's future was with Jobs gone, Ellison was his usual candid self.

"He was—he was brilliant. I mean, our Edison. He was our Picasso. He was an incredible inventor," said Ellison, a former member of the Apple board of directors who resigned from that position in September 2002.

"So what happens to Apple without Steve?" Rose asked.

"Well, we already know," Ellison said.

"What?" Rose asked.

"We saw—we conducted the experiment," Ellison said, referring to the 12-year period from 1985 to 1997 when Jobs was fired from the company by CEO John Scully and the Apple board. "I mean, it's been done."

"We saw Apple with Steve Jobs," says Ellison as he pointed his finger high into the air. "We saw Apple without Steve Jobs," he said, lowering the finger.

"We saw Apple with Steve Jobs," Ellison said, raising his finger again. "Now, we're gonna see Apple without Steve Jobs," he said, keeping the finger in the air for a few seconds before dropping it again.

Jobs had something that longtime Apple employees characterized as the "God particle"—something akin to a brush of divinity. Certainly, many millions of Apple customers and technology followers believed the same.

During the 12-year period when Jobs was away (when he founded Next Computer and bought Pixar Animation), and amid all the chief executive changes and departmental restructurings, product decisions and business indecisions, a core group of dedicated Apple staff members remained. They had longed for the old days when there was clear direction from the top, a shared corporate vision and a similar operational style. None of those characteristics were evident in the 12 Jobs-less years, according to several sources contacted by eWEEK.

"We all were looking for the 'God particle,' so to speak, in the new leadership that came and went," a longtime Apple department manager, who asked not to be identified by name for this article, told eWEEK. "None of them had anything close to it. To be fair, not too many people have it."

That would be a major understatement.

"It was a miracle that we were able to evolve the brand in the face of that tumult," said the manager, who worked at Apple from 1984 to 1997 and saw Jobs leave and return. "Steve was really good at bringing out the best in people, in getting them to reach beyond what they even knew they could do."

It's a safe assumption that all CEOs aspire to do exactly that.

Jobs, who brought that "God particle" back to the company's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, stayed on as CEO until the summer of 2011, when he turned the job over to a fellow longtime Apple exec, Tim Cook.

Jobs, who died that fall as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer, took his "God particle" talent and determination with him. We're not likely to see another person like him any time soon.

 

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