And now it’s Apple’s turn

It’s been a weird month for technology. And as always, Apple had a way to get people to stop talking about anything else, though it’s not the news Apple wanted do deliver this week. I can only think of one bit of news Apple would want to deliver less.

Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO. He’s becoming chairman, but perception is everything. Especially with Apple. I don’t think any company in recent memory has leveraged perception the way Apple has.

Jobs has been on leave all year, so all this really does is formalize the situation that’s been going on all year. But Apple stock dropped on the announcement. It will be interesting to see what it does today.

But I suspect Apple won’t be quite the same without Jobs calling the shots day to day. Microsoft lost something when Bill Gates stepped aside as CEO, even though he remained with the company for several years. Part of what made Steve Jobs what he is, though, was simply showing up twice a year to present Apple’s new products to adoring crowds, something he’ll presumably keep doing as chairman. Is that enough?

It’s too early to call. Marketers will be studying how Jobs leveraged perception for the better part of 15 years as Apple CEO, and they’ll be studying how he manages perception now that he’s no longer CEO.

Apple won’t implode immediately. They’ve proven in recent years that they’re able to continue even when Jobs is unable to spend a normal work week at the office.

Then again, Apple has a track record, from about 1985 to about 1996, without Jobs. And that track record isn’t exactly impressive. During the late 1980s, Apple nearly went under, and while it rebounded in the early 1990s as faster CPUs helped the Macintosh become usable, by the later part of the decade Apple was in trouble again. Apple bought NeXT, to get Jobs and the operating system his company had created. Jobs clearly learned some things during his exile at NeXT, and the operating system became Mac OS X, which proved capable of competing with other modern operating systems.

And of course, Jobs figured out how to sell MP3 players and cellular phones and tablets in ways nobody else has, before or since. Apple sells about the same number of computers as it ever did, but today phones and tablets make up most of the company’s revenue, and it’s gone from something of an industry joke–Robert X. Cringely used to have a picture of an apple core captioned “What remains of Ye Olde Apple” on his blog, circa 1997–to the most valuable company in the United States.

Jobs was a tough act to follow a quarter century ago. Regardless of what yesterday’s news ends up meaning, he’ll be a much tougher act to follow today.

What I’m reading says Tim Cook will be a more than adequate CEO. Perhaps a good CEO. Perhaps even a great CEO. But not a legend. Jobs is a lot of things, but probably first and foremost, he’s a legend.

One thing Steve Jobs didn’t do is groom a successor who is like himself. Cook comes across like Jobs’ opposite. When you look at Intel, they’ve survived the retirement of many CEOs. Gordon Moore and Andy Grove weren’t as legendary as Jobs–few are–but they’re legends within the industry. They just came up short of becoming pop-culture icons like Jobs. None of Intel’s recent CEOs have been the quote machines Moore and Grove were, but they’ve been tremendously effective and right now, nobody questions Intel’s long-term viability. The attributes of Moore and Grove most critical to Intel’s continued success lived on in Craig Barrett and Paul Otellini. Intel was their company, but it’s proven to be more than their company. Today, Intel is the world’s 48th most powerful brand, according to Millward Brown Optimor.

I can think of numerous companies who, like Apple, didn’t do what Intel did. Disney didn’t. Disney has done just fine for itself, but little of what they’ve done after Walt Disney retained the staying power of the stuff they did under Walt Disney. That’s part of the reason Disney had to buy Pixar. I can think of other companies that did much worse. One extreme is A.C. Gilbert, of Erector Set fame. At its peak, it was one of the largest toy companies in the world. Gilbert retired in 1954, and his company faltered. Coming back wasn’t an option–he died in 1961 at the age of 76–and by 1967, the company was in liquidation.

I expect Apple to be more like Disney than like Gilbert, especially as long as Jobs remains a viable chairman. But I think Apple looks a lot less invincible today than it looked 24 hours ago.

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