Not so fast.
Until the last sinew, the last synapse gives up, Steve will continue to influence the company he co-founded and later recreated. Seeing he could no longer ‘‘meet [his] duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO’’, Jobs kicks himself upstairs and becomes Chairman, director, and “mere” Apple employee. In a distant future, I see him haunting the circular hallways of Apple’s Cupertino spaceship, the Commendatore hunting the clock punchers and damning the linear thinkers straight to Hell.
Let’s review. In 1983, Apple’s Board of Directors felt that Steve required “adult supervision’’. John Sculley, the designated grownup, replaced Jobs as CEO and eventually pushed him out of the company.
Fast forward a decade and a half. In 1997, Steve returns to run his company unchallenged…but not unassisted. The Apple 2.0 management team, hand-picked, well-groomed, isn’t so much a stroke of genius as it is an emblem of the enfant terrible all grown up. As the Fortune chart below shows, Apple has no lack of ‘‘bench strength’’– and who’s providing the adult supervision now?
With Steve as Chairman, Tim Cook, Apple’s long-time COO, moves to the center of the chart. He joined the company 13 years ago, has always reported directly to Steve and saw his responsibilities increase over time. He now drives the team that made Apple the most valued and valuable high-tech company in the world.
As for ourselves: No whining. It’s our job, as consumers, to protect ourselves, to vote with our wallets against the bean counters, the Paint by Numbers product planners. It’s our place to provide ‘‘constructive feedback’’ when Apple products fail to meet the combined aesthetic and functional standards Dear Leader drilled into the marketplace. From MobileMe to “skeuomorphic” calendars, address books and bookshelves — to say nothing of fresh Lion bugs. Steve’s Apple may not be perfect, but…
A portentous example: The 1998 Bondi Blue iMac, the first visible re-assertion of Steve’s style — and of Jony Ive’s portfolio in the making:
Immediately iconic, users adored their iMacs. The unexpected shape and color set a new standard for high-tech products, so much so Apple competitors tried to rub the amulet for luck — and showed us what they really stood for: Cheap, imitative mediocrity. I recall going to Palo Alto’s Fry’s store and seeing beige PC clone boxes with candy-colored plastic inserts that approximated the iMac palette.
As a Forbes article put it, speaking of Dell’s similar fig-leaf attempt:
“Dell, ever concerned with keeping its inventory low, seems to be approaching colored notebooks in a much less risky way, using cheaper plastic inserts. Of course, the appearance of the Inspiron doesn’t inspire the way the first iMacs and iBooks did.”
The aesthetic knockoffs weren’t just cheap, they were ugly. The inserts looked even worse than the faux-wood ‘‘accents’’ on Chrysler dashboards. No cojones, no imagination, no taste.
Fast forward a bit more: Steve introduces the Apple Store. We’ll pass over the record-beating numbers and address the two messages the store imparts.
First, the architecture, an expression of the Apple ethos, says: ‘This is what we think of ourselves’.
Second, once inside the store, the experience states: ‘Here’s what we think of our relationship with you, our customer’.
In comparison, I see carriers trying to spruce up their store fronts with shiny metal appliqués — but go inside and you find cheap trade-show modular furniture.
Taste matters. Let’s turn to this YouTube video of the opening of an Apple Store clone. Not a Chinese counterfeit but a Microsoft Store in Scottsdale, Arizona. It starts much like the “real” thing: Happy customer, rows of high-fiving employees, a decor that looks familiar. But 40 seconds into the one minute video, we get the “tell”, the killer detail that gives the imitation away. Here we get the men in suits and ties:
Still more evidence of Steve’s influence: Just as HP decides to spin off its PC business (or perhaps not), PC clone makers demand an additional $100 subsidy per ‘‘ultra-portable’’ laptop from Intel. Why? They want to compete with Apple’s increasingly popular MacBook Air. It seems that the “Apple tax”, the premium we’re willing to pay for quality, isn’t enough to dissuade us.
PC clone makers can’t match Apple’s cost or its Bill Of Materials (BOM). The way Apple procures parts and subsystems, the way it runs contract manufacturing and stays on top of complicated but delicate distribution logistics is evidence of the company’s aggressive Supply-Chain Management (SCM). Steve – and thus Apple – understands that the channels need to be fed Just So, neither starved nor stuffed.
I found the BOM story interesting and looked up current ultra-portable prices. Who better than Sony in that product category? I went to their site and got this:
A nice MacBook Air competitor starting at $1969. The real thing starts at $1299.
Quite a reversal of the old world order and, I hope, a source of satisfaction for Jobs.
Spanning an amazing arc of thirty years, the company with the anti-establishment image has become the most disciplined, best-managed high-tech giant — and arbiter of taste.
When I first met Steve, in February 1981, he was sitting cross-legged on a credenza in the Apple board room, picking his toes. Since then I’ve watched with glee as he went against received wisdom, causing pundits to have fits at every turn. I picture them as a gaggle of eunuchs standing around the caliph’s bed, braying in high-pitched voice: ‘Steve, you’re doing it wrong!’
For a long time, I’ve seen him as having an animal inside him, the one with the desires, the instinct, the drive. In 1985, that animal threw Steve to the ground. He picked himself up at Pixar — you’d be a captain of industry for doing no more — and NeXT. Then, in 1997, armed with Pixar’s success and Next’s technical prowess, he came back to run Apple and make it really his.
He had learned to ride the animal.
Steve and Tim both speak, rightly, of Apple being at the crossroads of technology and humanities, liberal arts. In tribute to Jobs’ aesthetic sense, and why it deeply matters, I’ll conclude with a quote from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf:
‘’Before all else, I learned all these playthings were not mere idle trifles invented by manufacturers and dealers for the purposes of gain. They were, on the contrary, a little or, rather, a big world, authoritative and beautiful, many sided, containing a multiplicity of things all of which had the one and only aim of serving love, refining the senses, giving life to the dead world around us, endowing it in a magical way with new instruments of love, from powder and scent to the dancing show, from ring to cigarette case, from waist buckle to handbag. This bag was no bag, this purse no purse, flowers no flowers, the fan no fan. All were the plastic material of love, of magic and delight. Each was a messenger, a smuggler, a weapon, a battle cry.’’
Next week: Recipes don’t a chef make.
And, for a good laugh, Macalope’s view of this week’s worse pundits.