With the passing of Steve Jobs this month, the computing industry lost one of its founding fathers. The first computer I used on a professional basis was the Apple IIe and I had recently been weaned back to Apple products via iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and, of course last year, the iPad.
Steve Jobs’s real genius was being able to anticipate customer expectations. In strategy we call this Blue Oceans Strategy from Kim and Mauborgne’s book of the same name. This is as opposed to Red Oceans strategy which is concerned with a strategy of ‘fast follower’.
However, as Steve Wozniak has pointed out Jobs never wrote a line of code, nor did he ever design an electronic circuit. What he seemed to be able to do was be the consumer’s champion, in demanding good design, good interface and usability that made the competition look clunky. He didn’t invent the mouse interface; he copied it from PARC at Xerox. What he did was commercialise until it has now become the de facto standard on all machines. He didn’t invent the MP3 player. There were several already on the market. What he did do was come up with a cool design where the white buds (unintentionally) became an iconic manifestation of the brand. iTunes was not unique in offering music over the internet, but what he did here was invent a standard where all the stakeholders saw benefit. Who would have thought 30 years ago that Apple (the computing brand) would fight a copyright battle with Apple (the record label). When the two were launched it was never even considered they would converge. Now computing, hand-held devices and the internet are part of the digital product fulfilment infrastructure.
The iPhone was a victory of convergence. Bringing the various different technologies together that provided a single platform. I still don’t miss trundling my mobile phone and my iPod around with me, though the phone does leave a lot to be desired (it’s like holding a chopping board to your ear). Then finally the iPad. It is now the norm to turn up to a meeting with an iPad under your arm. In a recent DBA (doctoral) symposium I attended in Amsterdam recently four out of the ten were using iPad and a figure of 40% amongst executives seems usual. That Apple dominated the tablet space was simply because, well because they were Apple. They used the market dominance they had achieved. People bought the iPad because it was Apple, proving the critics wrong who had seen notebooks gain traction and then fail (when they put Windows on it, curiously enough).
The question for Apple now is, will it survive the passing of its founding father, the inspiration and the figurehead? But that is slightly the wrong question. Was Steve Jobs so central to the role that all innovation in Apple depended on him? There are examples in history where once a strong and autocratic leader left the company lost its former glory. In his resignation letter CEO Steve Jobs said the Apple had its greatest years ahead of it. The real question, then, is Steve Jobs the manager rather than Steve Jobs the marketeer? Has sufficient succession planning been conducted to ensure Apple’s success in the future, and was the cult of Steve Jobs just a facade? We have got to remember that a company is more than the sum of all its employees or even its heroic leader.
I think this will be what Steve Jobs should be remembered for. Not the iconic gadgets (much as I love them) but for building an organisation that anticipated and exceeded customer expectations. Whether this success is sustainable will be the true mark of his genius.