Apple Without Steve Jobs: The First Year Only Tells Us So Much

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Steve Jobs speaks at Macworld Expo on Jan. 9, 2001

This is — as you may have figured out by now — an article about how Apple has fared in the year since Steve Jobs passed away. I suspect that it’ll be one of scads of such stories to be published today, the first anniversary of his death. Some are already out there.

But would it be too confusing if I questioned the whole concept of judging the post-Jobs Apple after only a year?

This may be a minority opinion. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that Apple is doing just fine. Its stock is up 75% since Jobs’ death. It’s sprinted past ExxonMobil to become the world’s largest company based on market capitalization. The iPad still dominates the tablet market. The iPhone 5 is the fastest-selling iPhone ever.

None of which has prevented pundits from declaring — repeatedly! — that Apple has already lost its way. (Actually, people were saying that even before Jobs left us.) It’s not just the iOS 6 Maps meltdown, the company’s biggest post-Jobs misstep to date. Even TV commercials are read like tea leaves.

(MORE: Steve Jobs: Remembering the Dissatisfied Man)

This hair-trigger tendency to see everything as a sign that the post-Jobs Apple is doomed, doomed, doomed gives lots of potentially reasonable Apple criticism an absurdist quality. I mean, anybody who contends that Tim Cook is doing a catastrophically crummy job as Apple CEO — so bad that he should be fired or even has Jobs riled up in heaven — really ought to name at least one person who’d be better suited to the gig. Nobody ever does.

Objectively, the top-level assessment of Apple’s current state seems pretty straightforward to me:

  • Overall, it’s doing phenomenally well.
  • It isn’t perfect.
  • For any action it takes, we can never know for sure whether things would have been different if Steve Jobs were still with us. But we do know that he had his own lapses in judgment, failures and flip-flops. So the fact that Apple is making mistakes isn’t a sign that it’s falling apart without its co-founder.

All of this isn’t just straightforward; it was utterly predictable.

Jobs left behind a deeply competent team: Cook, design god Jonathan Ive, marketing honcho Phil Schiller, software kingpin Scott Forstall, manufacturing expert Bob Mansfield and others. They understand how to make great products, and they’re still working on ideas that originated in the Jobs era.

Even if these guys were going to muck up Apple, it would take several years and multiple generations of products to do it. For now, they’re making increasingly refined versions of what were already the most polished gadgets in the business.

Jobs, of course, wasn’t just the tech business’s grand master of getting nitpicky little details right. He also excelled at big-picture stuff: from the Mac to the iPod to iTunes to the iPhone to the iPad, he spearheaded far more industry-shifting new products than anyone else in the business. And that’s the biggest question mark about Apple’s future: Can Tim Cook, who doesn’t claim to be a product visionary, preserve Apple’s remarkable track record of coming up with the next big thing? We don’t know yet, and we don’t know when we will know. We don’t even know for sure whether Apple’s working on anything that might qualify — like, oh, say, a TV.

It’s worth considering the impact that the death of Walt Disney — the closest thing corporate America had to a Steve Jobs–like figure before Jobs came along — had on his namesake company, which had been the most innovative outfit in entertainment for decades.

Disney died on Dec. 15, 1966. The studio continued releasing movies very much like the ones it had been making in the years preceding his passing, including cartoons created by the Nine Old Men, the animators who had worked with Walt since the 1930s. The idea for Walt Disney World originated in the 1950s, but the park didn’t open until 1971; when it did, it was a tremendous success.

It took years for it to become clear to everyone involved that the company was faltering. And when it did, it wasn’t because it forgot how to create entertainment of the sort it had already been producing. It was because its understanding of Walt’s genius was backward-looking.

Apple isn’t going to repeat that mistake. In fact, when Jobs handed the company over to Cook, the two discussed the Disney company as a case study in what not to do. But a willingness to change will get Apple only so far.

Sooner or later, some tech company is going to introduce something that shakes up everything in the way that so many of Apple’s creations have done in the past. Until we know whether that company is Apple once again, we can’t truly measure the lasting impact of Jobs’ absence from the company he co-invented and kept on reinventing.

For now, to riff on what an anonymous wise person once said, it’s better to stay silent on Apple’s fate and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.