A year ago today, Apple's long-time CEO Steve Jobs passed away. In the twelve months since then, Apple has forged ahead and, in some ways, is stronger than it was before. But can they keep this up?
By one criteria there's no doubt Apple under CEO Tim Cook is better off: it's stock value has climbed through the roof, nearly doubling. Clearly, investors believe that Cook can lead Apple.
The mobile devices that Apple has released in the last year bear this up. Both the third-generation iPad that came out in the spring and the recently-released iPhone 5 are doing well, selling by the million.
Competing Against a Ghost
The death of Steve Jobs has put the company in an odd position -- one of Apple's biggest competitors is now The Ghost of Apple Past. Every product that is released is compared to what people think this device would have been if Steve Jobs was still in charge. People's inaccurate memories of Jobs are sometimess causing these comparisons to be be unrealistic
The iPhone 5 has been criticized for being "boring", as it's simply an improved version of last year's model -- it's evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Some people are sure Jobs would never have done such a thing. This ignores the fact that this has always been Apple's product strategy. Every iPhone that has been released has been a moderately improved version of its predecessor, even when Steve Jobs sat in the CEO chair.
When the Maps software in iOS was found to be plagued with problems, Tim Cook apologized and promised to fix the app as quickly as possible. That's not how Jobs would have handled the matter, but few would think his way was better -- when the iPhone 4 was found to have a problem with its antenna, Steve Jobs told people that if they didn't like the device they didn't have to buy it.
The Dark Side of Steve Jobs
Since his death, people have tended to remember the brilliance of Steve Jobs and swept his problems under the rug. That's fine when giving a eulogy, but a more realistic view is necessary when considering the long-term chances for Apple without him at the helm.
Jobs could be a bit arbitrary. He believed wholeheartedly in his vision of Apple's products, and to him anyone who disagreed with that vision was simply wrong. As it turns out, most of the time he was right, but not always.
As an example of how this can go wrong, information that leaked out of Apple last year indicated that Jobs killed the device we know as the iPhone 5 just before it was going to be released. He made this move even though Apple's competitors have steadily increased the size of their screens. And now that the iPhone 5 is actually out, the reaction often isn't that it's too big but rather that Apple should have made the screen even larger, increasing its width as well as its height.
In short, increasing the size of the iPhone's screen was something Apple clearly needed to do, but Steve Jobs didn't want to so it didn't happen. Tim Cook green-lighted the device and it has quickly proved to be a success.
Jobs is also on record opposing the idea of making a smaller tablet than the 10-inch iPad. Now that he's no longer the head honcho, Apple is widely rumored to be working on an 8-inch tablet. Obviously it's too soon to give any figures on how this will sell, but it will certainly be a strong competitor for the array of small Android-based tablets that are available.
A Long-Term Question
Steve Jobs' genius was not in the day-to-day running of the company -- he was a man who was well known for his ability and willingness to make employees cry. Instead, what he could do better than anyone else is develop new products that revolutionize markets.
There were MP3 players before the iPod, but they weren't very popular. Apple's offering sold in such huge numbers that it almost single-handedly changed the music industry. There were smartphones before the iPhone, but Apple converted them from gadgets owned by a few businesspeople into something that's in the pockets of about half the U.S. population. The tablet market was moribund in 2010, but the iPad quickly made this into a device that's doing so well it's significantly cutting into laptop sales.
So the real question is, can Tim Cook and his right-hand man Jonathan Ive do the same thing? Ive is Apple's Senior Vice-President for Industrial Design and it will be up to him to spot areas where Apple can come in and release a product that will revolutionize another market. Can he do it? Only time will tell.
At some point, new products will come along that replace the smartphone and the tablet. For Apple to stay on top, Cook and Ive will have to do what Steve Jobs could -- see these opportunities before anyone else does and put out a well-designed Apple device. If they can'tdo this, then some other company will inevitably take Apple's place.