Apple Without Jobs?

Apple ComputerIt’s said when the US economy sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. The same could be said of Apple — or more specifically Steve Jobs — and the technology sector.

So far it’s been the other way around — both Apple and its rock star front-man have been in ruder health every year since his late nineties return that turned the company around. Many new products have been revolutions and a few have literally rewritten the narrative of our relationship to machinery.

But as anyone who saw footage or photos of Jobs from the 2007 Apple developers conference knows, Jobs looked thin and weakened from his treatment for a rare kind of pancreatic cancer.

If the CEO of any other multinational company fell ill, it wouldn’t generate such comment — compared to Jobs, they’re interchangeable suit-wearing lawyers, politicians and number crunchers who flit from one company, regulator and law firm to another and back again.

But everyone from the blogosphere to Wall Street is asking; what would Apple look like post-Jobs? Is he alone the X factor, the secret sauce, the magic ingredient?

It can be argued that no man is an island. Jobs has his lieutenants in everything from design to engineering. His talent appears to have been finding and filling the sweetest possible spot where the two merge, a magic place few other technology makers find (even when they copy Apple outright).

So there might be someone just as charismatic, just as ready to claim every product will ‘make history’ as Jobs was, someone like him who knows what the people want before they do.

But here’s the thing we forget in the technology blogs, the Wall St Journal and the ad agencies.

Not many people really care.

Ask ten people on the street if they can name the CEO of Apple, sure more will get it right that if you asked them to name the CEO of BAE Systems or GE (Ian King and Jeff Immelt respectively if you’re curious, but neither wear black turtlenecks and jeans to every public and media appearance). Did that colour consumers decisions to buy an iPod? Undoubtedly not — those of us in the industry who know Jobs and his mystique probably wouldn’t have been influenced by it either.

There’d still be a thousand MP3 players and mobile phone models on the market without the iPod and iPhone, so the punter doesn’t care about Apple, Jobs or anything else, just the product. If there hadn’t been any such thing as the iPod the millions of phone and music player buyers would have bought something else and loved it just as much.

So in asking whether Apple will be poorer (financially or culturally) without Jobs, we need to ask ourselves whether the intangible, immutable, unmatched cool in Apple products is Jobs himself, or just a brave company culture who isn’t afraid to spend money when he asks his workers to make the coolest product in every category.

After doing so much so right for so long, nobody at Cupertino is likely to change direction.