By pretty much any standard you care to use, Steve Jobs was absolutely crucial to Apple's success in recent years. Products like the iPhone and iPad - which together account for a majority of Apple's revenue - were created in large part by Jobs. Numerous decisions about how the products would work, how they would be designed, how they would be marketed, all came from Jobs. Jobs was a charismatic leader whose vision drove Apple to become the most valuable company in the world (by a sizable margin, by the way).
When Jobs left his post as Apple's CEO last fall, and when he passed away in October, there were many questions about Apple's future. How could the company survive without its visionary, charismatic leader? Could Apple continue to make the kinds of products that had put it on top? It's been just over six months since Jobs's death, and while Apple has turned in two stellar quarters since then. At first glance, then, it may seem that Apple has weathered Jobs's death well and is on track to remain the strong company he crafted.
Some, though, still see trouble on the horizon for a Jobs-less Apple. George Colony, CEO of Forrester research, wrote in a blog post yesterday that Jobs's death has thrown Apple into a state of transition that will take years for the company to navigate. Citing the work of sociologist Max Weber, who wrote about the various structures organizations can adopt, Colony argues that Steve Jobs's Apple was a charismatic organization, a company built around the vision and charisma of a single person. Without another charismatic leader to take Jobs's place, Apple will be forced to conduct itself differently - more like any other company.
This, Colony says, means that Apple cannot maintain its current level of ascendancy for long. Absent a charismatic successor to Jobs (a role which Tim Cook, apparently doesn't fill, despite being hand-picked by Jobs himself), Apple will coast along on its current momentum for another two to four years before beginning to slip from its currently lofty position. When that happens, Apple will "move from being a great company to being a good company," a transition that will be reflected in reductions in its revenue growth and in the creation of new, innovative products.
While Colony may well be right about Apple's future - no company can climb as high as Apple has and maintain its position forever - he may also be giving Jobs too little credit for his planning and forethought. Jobs knew full well what had happened to Apple following his ouster in 1985. While Jobs spent the next nine years continuing to innovate and to grow, Apple faltered, withered, and all but died. Jobs was smart enough to know that the same thing could happen again. By all accounts he took measures during his time at Apple to ensure that the company could continue on its current course without him. While even those steps aren't likely to keep Apple at the top forever, they will probably help the company remain ascendant for longer than Colony's 24-28 month window.
Though Apple has done well in the six months since Jobs's death, it is nevertheless too early to tell how the company will do without him. While Apple has done extremely well in the past two quarters, its success has relied heavily on the iPhone 4S and the new iPad, devices that were almost certainly among Jobs's final projects with the company. Once the remaining products he worked directly on have seen the light of day and Apple comes to its next product cycle, that's when it will be time to start really watching the company closely. Because ultimately the question isn't how well Apple can function as a company without Jobs. The question is how well Apple can innovate without him.
What do you think? Can Apple survive without Jobs? Will they become just another tech company, or will they remain at the top? What will Apple need to do in the coming years to keep its position? Let us know in the comments.