The Virtuous CIO  

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October 26, 2011 — Whither Apple?

Now that Apple has experienced regime change in the most permanent way possible, the analysts and soothsayers in the trade press are sifting through the meager information available to them about Apple. To say that Apple is protective of information is like saying... well... let's just say they don't part with it willingly. While this does not make the chattering classes in the media happy, it is a source of great competitive advantage.

The latest tidbit to seep out of Cupertino is the news that Steve Jobs supposedly left behind a four-year road-map of product plans and probably strategies. Frankly, I would have been surprised if he hadn't. Further, the people running a business of any significance would be insane not to have a product road-map extending well into the future. So, to say that the Apple managers opened a mysterious document which told them the direction to move is probably inaccurate. Apple has had a plan in place, and it almost certainly was Steve's plan.

The next question: can Apple execute on Jobs' vision, now and in the future? The consensus is that it can, and I have to agree. When Jobs arrived back at Apple in 1997, he was confronted with a pack of squabbling children. They were deliriously happy to have him back, but the place was just a mess. Jobs accomplished two key tasks right out of the gate: putting effective governance in place, and focusing on insanely great products (to quote Bill Gates in another context). And the greatness was primarily the result of Jobs' marketing genius.

Each successive new product was driven by Jobs' manic insistence that it delight the customer. Jobs was uncompromising in his efforts to make the product seem perfect to the customer. And this is the secret sauce, the pixie dust that has made Apple great. Is it now gone? It's hard to say.

There is no shortage of smart people working in Cupertino. Apple is an idea factory. For every new product that emerges from behind the curtain, there are certainly dozens that made their way varying distances along the development path before being unceremoniously killed. The genius is in selecting those products that delight the customer, grab market share, generate high margins, and maintain Apple's focus. A miss in any of these areas will dilute what Apple is, and eventually destroy the company if not fixed.

The stories of Steve Jobs' behavior are legion. He was unmerciful to those who failed in some way. My philosophy is that you don't have to be a jerk to generate excellence, but he certainly made it work for him.