Can Apple Thrive Without Steve Jobs?

Opinion: Apple is defending CEO Steve Jobs as the company is under investigation by the feds. To some, he is Apple. But could the company make do without its very public leader?

Ten years ago, give a week or two, Steve Jobs returned to Apple Computer, the company that he had co-founded in the now-hazy garage beginnings of the personal computer era. The company was a fiscal, organizational and technological mess.

Under Jobs leadership, the company has regained a solid, if still small, foothold in the industry, still as a manufacturer of computers as well as prominently a seller of consumer A/V devices and content services. This turnaround was no small accomplishment. For many, its a modern miracle, with Jobs being given the major share of the credit along with Svengalic status.

However, concern on the street grew in December that Jobs tenure may come to an end, not by a coup by the board of directors as happened in 1985, but from legal troubles around stock options and perhaps a cover-up.

In the streets imagination, Apple is Jobs. Or perhaps the other way around: Jobs is Apple. Whatever. This theory is still all about Jobs cracking the whip in Cupertino and speaking the Mac gospel to the public at the annual Macworld Expo and Apple Worldwide Developer Conference keynotes.

But is that right? Is this personal identification necessary for the continued success of Apple?

The latest scare stems from investigation of hundreds of companies, in and out of the tech field, for having backdated stock options. On Dec. 27, reported that federal prosecutors were examining whether Apple executives "apparently falsified" stock option documents.

On Dec. 29, Apple filed its quarterly and year-end reports and defended Jobs.

"The special committee, its independent counsel and forensic accountants have performed an exhaustive investigation of Apples stock option granting practices," according to a joint statement by Al Gore, the chairman of special committee, and Jerome York, the chairman of Apples Audit and Finance Committee.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about Apples filing and legal problems.

At the same time, Jobs reportedly hired his own legal team to handle his personal defense. So, things could get uglier. Or not.

Before heading into Apples existential questions about Jobs, let me give you a piece of Jobs history that you may not know: His return was foretold by prophecy.

Near on 10 years ago, I was frantically tearing up a year-in-review special report due for the Jan. 6, 1997, print edition of MacWEEK. All the timelines and stories needed rewriting to accommodate the just-announced news of Apples selection of Jobs and his NeXTstep OS. Throughout 1996, the word was that Jean Louis Gasse of Be and the companys BeOS were all but a done deal.

/zimages/2/28571.gifDo you dare to take eWEEK.coms Apple trivia challenge in honor of the companys 30th anniversary? Click here to read more.

One assignment that I handed out for this special report was an interview about Apples upcoming year with a local Silicon Valley psychic. If it was good enough for Nancy Reagan, why not for Apple?

Leander Kahney spoke to "intuitive consultant" Barbara Courtney. She said that she had clients at many tech companies, including Apple, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola, as well as politicos in local and federal government. (And we wonder why things are the way they are?)

However, looking back on the story, Courtney fares well in the prediction department. Long before the announcement of the Apple-NeXT Software merger, the psychic predicted the return of a "shadowy figure from Apples past," Kahney wrote.

Heres a snippet from the article: "I wonder who it is that left early on that might be coming back to the company?" Courtney pondered. "I dont get a name, but it feels like [someone from] when Apple was the newest and hottest thing on the block, someone at a higher level will get reinvolved again in the same capacity. It feels like someone is coming full circle."

Wow. Of course, she backpedaled a bit on this prediction when Leander quizzed her about Be, which at the time was reportedly leading the race. We can only assume that this outside information led her astray.

Who figured that Jobs would return? Nobody. The return of Steve Jobs was a super-secret held only in the top echelons of executive management.

In addition, she had a couple of other solid hits—on the standing of then CEO Gil Amelio and his management team and the performance of Apple stock. Remember that at the time, Apple was still digesting its latest reorganization and in April had recorded a $740 million loss.

Courtney said pressure would break up the top executive team in the middle of 1997. "I dont see the team there now falling into place. I dont know whos leaving, but I would say there will be a change in one of those positions," she said in the story.

In that summer, Jobs commanded his own putsch of Apples top ranks. Amelio and Ellen Hancock departed in July, and Jobs was named CEO shortly thereafter.

The psychic also suggested that Apple stock was a good investment, countering the doomsayers then in the media and analyst ranks. Apple has been called "dead" many times, including by the editors of PC WEEK, the successor publication to eWEEK.

"When people called me and said, Oh dear, Ive got stock in Apple, I told them to hang on to it. ... If I had more disposable income I would definitely buy stock in Apple," the psychic said then.

Apples stock price was about $12 at that time in 1996; it closed around $85 the other day. Its also split twice since then. Heres a 10-year chart from

Next Page: The Steve Jobs difference.