Can Apple be great without Steve Jobs?

Last of the a PC-era's founding fathers to retire with no answer to the biggest question about Apple.

The last time Steve Jobs left Apple permanently, Macs were still earning Apple's reputation for building innovative, well-designed, trend-setting computers that did as much as any other technology to shatter the monolithic control of IT and IBM over the power of computing.

That was in May, 1985, less than a year after Apple's iconic Big Brother commercial imprinted the image of Apple as a rebel in the minds of customers. The image mirrored one Jobs told interviewers he had of himself at the time as a "pirate" attacking a slow, complacent industry with the revolutionary idea that computers should be easy for normal people to use.

After Jobs was pushed out in 1985, former Pepsi exec John Sculley turned Apple into a solid company in financial and organizational terms, nearly ruining it in the process.

The sudden reorganizations, product cancellations, delays, redesigns and purges driven by Jobs' volatility and refusal to accept any results but the ones he envisioned – whether they were possible or not – were gone. Life as an Apple employee became a lot more stable.

Life as an Apple customer slid steadily downhill as Windows began to resemble the Mac and there seemed to be fewer reasons to buy a premium-priced piece of hardware with a steadily shrinking list of business applications with which to use it.

That didn't all change when Jobs came back in '98, but the sense of chaos, demand for disruption and tolerance for risky design decisions (leave out the floppy; eventually people will quit using them anyway) returned.

Jobs hired Sculley because Apple was a small company becoming a big company. It needed a top manager who knew what that meant and how to make it happen.

The guy he chose had all that, but learned all he knew in a business that was so inherently generic and commoditized that it was often impossible to identify competing products once their packaging was removed.

Since returning Jobs has driven at least two major platform conversions in the computer industry, and possibly three. Laptops and smartphones were both gadgets until Jobs started treating them as primary devices and gave customers a reason to as well.

He tried to do the same with tablets, but it's still unclear whether he succeeded or if tablets will remain primarily as media viewers, e-book readers and note-takers – devices secondary to a user's primary computer, not a primary device in itself.

Apple has become so successful so quickly with the iPhone and iPad – which drove a resurgence in everything Apple does or makes – that I wondered in a January blog what the company would have to do to knock itself off such a high pedestal.

Any company that succeeds at that level is bound to be brought down a peg eventually, by a rise in the quality of the competition if not by some mistake of its own.

The only real weakness I could see was Apple's dependence on Jobs himself. Without Jobs there to stir things up, the company would have to rely on some level of Steve Jobs emulation – individual managers or groups within the company put together with the budget, goals and staff to generate the kind of disruptive technology Jobs always demanded.

It may not be really possible to create a permanent culture of creative disruption, though both Pixar has shown it consistently, even when Jobs wasn't spending much time managing it and even after he sold it to Disney.

I hate to quote myself, but nothing in the months since Jobs announced he was leaving for a temporary medical leave has answered the questions I had at the time:

If just keeping the lights on and the iPads rolling off the line would be a problem without Jobs there cracking the whip, Apple would have gone out of business long ago.

The question is whether it will be able to consistently produce new and compelling products without him at a time when the whole computer business is playing fast-follower on every hot product Apple has.

It's a maxim of any creative business that not all good ideas can come from one person, and that the problem is never a lack of good ideas. The problem is figuring out which of a huge pile are the good ideas and which, among them, are the great ones.

Jobs' talent has always been picking the brilliant from a pile of the simply adequate, then making radical changes in design, manufacturing, distribution and marketing to get the greatest impact out of it. – Jan. 18, 2011

I'm far from an Apple fanboy, but there's no question Jobs has been one of the great forces in a revolutionary time in an industry revolutionizing the rest of society. That doesn't mean everything he did was great, but it was always influential.

The question remaining about Apple – the reason its stock dropped after Jobs' resignation became public – is whether Jobs was just a brilliant product guy able to get a big company to deliver what he wanted, or whether he was able to build a company able to deliver brilliance on its own.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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