The Right Question


I’m sitting in a hotel room hundreds of miles away from what I would ordinarily call my usual haunts hanging on to the ‘net through a particularly dodgy EDGE link-up, so it’s taken me a while to read up on the (largely overwrought) feedback to Steve’s transition to chairman.

The most lucid opinions are, from my standpoint, by those who both point out that a) this has long been in the making and b) that Apple is designed, almost fractally so, to embody Steve’s ethos.

So despite the inextricable ties between the Exxon-topping, industry-shaping Apple of today and it’s newly appointed chairman, the transition has more of a psychological than a practical effect.

Most people are asking themselves (rather loudly and publicly, of course) about Apple’s future, which is, to me, a rather moot point - like Microsoft, they’ve reached a size where they’re unlikely to go away anytime soon - but unlike Microsoft (or, say, Nokia) they operate a razor-sharp, iteratively revamped R&D and hardware business with high margins and truly unique products that keep beating the crap out of the competition’s in terms of usability and functionality.

And they never stay still or freeze a product line waiting for the cash to flood in - they constantly re-invest in new product development. Apple could take a steep hit on profits and keep going until the next big thing, unlike, say, HP’s hardware business.

Or Google’s, insofar as they’ll actually build one - in their case the economics are completely different, but there is only so much attention to detail one needs to consolidate an advertising business (most of the “cool stuff” done at Google is sadly not very focused, so until that happens I’ll keep thinking of them as being in advertising).

So any side effects of yesterday’s transition boil down to the industry’s perception of one man’s reach and vision - which is, in some ways, as it should be, not for the sake of Apple’s business but for all our own’s.

The real question is not “What will Apple do without Steve Jobs”, or even “what will the industry be like without him”.

No, the question we should ask ourselves is “Why are there no others?”

Why, short of a handful of people peppered around the industry (some in the unlikeliest of places), are there no publicly recognizable, charismatic leaders driving their own Apples with a laser-like focus?

The usual excuse is fairly lenghty, and tries to neatly wrap together the disparate notions that Steve’s particular brand of obsessive attention to detail and strategic awareness is unique, that he has divine-like inspiration and that he ran everything through him, so therefore he must be superhuman in nature and thus worthy of the kind of adulation one would ordinarily reserve towards a member of some pantheon or other.

That is utter crap, of course. There can be no denying his focus on details and the devastating effects of his criticism towards anything that wasn’t done to the best of anyone’s ability, nor the compelling directness of his presentation style - all of which usually contribute to the above in one way or another, but which are seldom referenced as basic principles for doing business Apple-style.

Those kinds of arguments mostly avoid the deeper question in an attempt to grasp tangential, almost inconsequential by-products of a particular kind of personality to skirt more serious questions - like, again, why are there no other industry heads able to re-shape not just one, but two industries (personal computing and mobile) and end users’ expectations of what products should be like.

In both markets1.

Now, I’m tapping this out on an iPhone - not even a new model, but an effectively obsolete, goodness knows how old iPhone 3G that I brought along to the beach. My being able to do so without any other computing device is entirely Apple’s doing, and just one example of how computing “traditionalists” completely miss the point about Apple or what end users can actually achieve with Apple products2.

And I’m not even going to go on about herds of investors or the groupthink mentality that dominates (and paralyzes) the mobile industry as a whole - the latter are still in the 90s, trying to eek out money from SMSes and refusing to let go of their cozy niches until it’s too late.

So I don’t expect many people to ask themselves (or the world at large) why there is an absence of Steve-equivalent people in the industry - any industry, in fact.

I am, however, one thousand per cent sure an inordinate amount of people will try to answer this question without fully realizing the implications of asking it in the first place.


  1. Actually, there were at least three markets - iTunes and it’s impact on the music industry are something I don’t really think about given how long it’s been, and part of me keeps wondering about Pixar… ↩︎

  2. I tapped out the whole thing in one go (except for footnotes and links) on the phone looking out to sea, posted it, went about a day of basking in the sun and swearing at my frustrating lack of connectivity, and did the hyperlinking later on my iPad, if you must know. Even then, so much for the theories about tablets not being productivity enablers, huh? ↩︎