I don’t think Apple will be able to continue its string of glorious successes without Steve Jobs at the helm. First, Jobs has the highest imaginable standards for product usability: he listens to that little internal voice which most of us, if we ever hear that voice at all, try to suppress — the voice that says, “This isn’t working quite right. This experience is good, but it isn’t absolutely frictionless. It doesn’t feel utterly natural.” If Jobs experiences any friction, any awkwardness in the use of a prototype product, he sends it back for further refinement. And he will keep doing this until the product meets his expectations, no matter how long it takes.
Very few people have standards that high; fewer still believe in their own standards so absolutely that they don’t question themselves, don’t at some point say “Well, maybe I’m over-reading this, maybe there’s really nothing wrong with this prototype.”
But even if Apple could find someone to run the company whose tastes were that finely honed and whose self-belief was that complete — very unlikely in itself — they still wouldn’t have solved their problem. Because that unerringly sensitive and immensely confident person would still have to be able to convince the people working under him* to meet his expectations, even when they seem wildly unreasonable. Steve Jobs can say, “Time and again in the past I have made outrageous demands on my engineers and designers, and when they have come through we have produced world-changing products. So do what I tell you and we’ll all be immensely rewarded.” But no one else in the tech world can say that.
Apple after Steve Jobs may well continue to make fine products. But I don’t see any chance that they will continue to make products that have the sheer aura of the first Macintosh and the many products that have succeeded the first iPod. Those of us who are Apple fans had better enjoy this run while we can, because at some point, sooner or later, it’s going to end.
* I say “him” because I can’t imagine a bunch of engineers responding positively to such pushback from a woman. Perhaps I underestimate them.
January 24, 2011