When Steve Jobs resigned as Apple's CEO in August, it seemed he would remain involved for an extended period as the company's chairman. It was said at the time that he would be a hands-on, God-like figure, still very much involved in product development and a guiding hand for his apparently capable replacement, Tim Cook. Apple's prospects, as I said at the time, seemed solid.
That future is not so certain today.
The world ground to a halt yesterday with news that Jobs died after a battle with cancer last night, his passing prompting vigils at Apple stores and the release of statements from the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates.
It would be pointless for me to recount a tale now being told by every news outlet in every country on the planet, of a man who dropped out of college, made a computer and changed the world. Jobs was a genius, and his impact is severe. As Obama said this morning: "The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented."
While it's right to remember Jobs' life and legacy, what matters is understanding what this giant brought to the modern world. His true success was in transforming pure capitalism into a force that touched people's lives and changed them for what they perceived to be the better. He created a vision of the present that, for many, eclipsed money. Steve Jobs was a leader. That he was, when all's said and done, a computer manufacturer, is completely irrelevant. Jobs and the glossy veneer of his Apple world were a way of life.
The terrifying prospect facing Tim Cook and the rest of Apple today is that the illusion may have been shattered.
Jobs' death arrived merely a day after Apple announced iPhone 4S in Cook's first press conference as boss. The news was met by a muted response: there was a wide expectation that iPhone 5 would be shown for the first time this week, and that Apple instead chose to reveal an iPhone 4 upgrade has been tough for many to swallow. Even the BBC questioned whether or not 4S is "quite different enough" to keep Apple ahead in the increasingly bitter smartphone wars.
The fear is that we are now starting to see Apple iterate with no hint as to what its next shock innovation may be. Had Jobs remained in his overseer position for many years, there would have been little question that Apple could spot gaps, create trends and continue to capitalise. With Jobs dead, it's impossible not to question whether or not Apple will sink back into the fight against other manufacturers instead of leading the way.
When Jobs resigned I said it was "time to accept reality: Apple is more than one man." That's an inarguable fact, but it's one with a caveat: that Jobs would be standing in the wings as Cook grew into the role. The panickers quickly asked who'd be responsible for the sort of breakthrough tech Jobs brought to market in iPhone and iPad, and the answer was simple: Steve Jobs.
But Jobs is now dead. There will be no hand-holding. What is impossible to confirm is whether or not the thousands of men and women that form Apple can ever bring the spark needed to lead not only the tech industry but a global nation of connected followers. For Apple's shareholders, fans and employees, that's a question that needs to be answered very quickly indeed.
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