Steve Jobs and Indispensability

Steve Jobs shows off iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worl...

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Steve Jobs announced yesterday that he is retiring as president of Apple but, would continue as Chairman of the Board. By all reports his health is not good and I wish him all the best.

Mr. Jobs is one of the current legends of American business, as he should be. The saga of Apple from one of the two (or maybe three) co-founders of the PC industry: IBM, Microsoft, and Apple.

Some times we forget get that IBM was a very big fish in mainframe and mini computers since the fifties. For a large, staid company (remember when the dress code at IBM required white shirt and tie) to turn loose an insurgent division and continue to support it as it nearly kills the main company is a very remarkable story.

Of course, IBM’s partner was none other than Microsoft. Bill Gates, personally, in his parents garage, modified the old CPM operating system, turning it into MS-DOS. A legend was born. Windows, of course, came later, mostly in response to the Macintosh.

Then there was Apple, from the beginning it was (in some people’s opinion) a better platform. But where the IBM/Microsoft platform was an open design that anybody and everybody could (and did) produce both hardware and software, Apple was proprietary. This is the key decision that fueled the PC to dominance of the market. It also in terms of market made Apple an also ran. Apple trudged along making innovations (such as the mouse) that everybody copied and defining a high end market that endured high prices, proprietary software and other things, and received a better, more stable platform, especially in graphic applications.

But Apple’s niche market was not enough to support the company and they fought to stay alive through the 90’s.

In 1997 in an attempt to restore profitability Apple purchased NeXT, which brought Steve Jobs back to the company. Also in 1997 Jobs became the interim CEO and started turning the company around.

In 2001 came the Ipod and the rest you probably know.

Anyway, what we have here is a great American business story. The entrepreneur who loses control of his company and get it back and succeeds. To the point that Apple is now the largest company in the world. That’s the main story here.

But let’s drill down a bit. Apple is almost Steve Jobs personal vision, and it’s quite a vision. But how will Apple do without the day-to-day supervision of Steve Jobs. When they tried in the 1990’s the company nearly went under.

So the question becomes: Has Apple developed other people with the vision of the future market that Jobs has? Obviously only time will tell, but Jobs has not been in good health for years, so one would assume that he has made it a priority to do this. We will see.

We in business always say that no one is indispensable, and we are right. But when one is a leader of the caliber of Steve Jobs, if one does not develop his successors, they will not appear by magic, when needed. Obviously, Apple has many talented people but do they have Jobs’ sense of the market’s future and ability to shape it? We’ll see. I hope so.

The upside is that with Jobs remaining as Chairman, he can continue to have an influence (health permitting) on the company for the foreseeable future.

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