Home > Business / Corporate Strategies, News Analysis > How will Apple cope without Steve Jobs at the helm?

How will Apple cope without Steve Jobs at the helm?

Technology adoption lifecycleCutting straight to the chase – the short answer is: just fine.

When Steve Jobs took medical leave from the post of Apple’s CEO back in 2009, the markets went a little bit crazy – the company’s stock price tumbled to below $80 per share and closed, as far as I remember, some 7% down on the day.

This time round, when Apple announced his resignation from the top job, it seems like the stock market has shown considerably more maturity – in fact, upon the announcement the company’s share price reaction was marginal.

The company itself had, of course, prepared us all for this – it was expected and inevitable that the big man would, at some point in the not-so-distant future, have to step down. You could argue in fact that Apple’s stock price took the beating early on for what in the end turned out to be a multi-year process (Jobs took another leave of absence in January 2011 too, so I guess the market had several opportunities to react).

However, I think a more important reason for this “lack of sensitivity” was that investors woke up to the idea that the fate of the largest company in America (around the time Jobs resigned, Apple officially took the top spot away from Exxon Mobil) physically can’t be hinging on the charisma, vision and leadership of a single person, no matter how much of a visionary/innovator (guru?)  reputation he might have in the industry (how the Steve Jobs brand was built over nearly 30 years could easily fill another blog post or two, btw).

But, Apple isn’t really a technology innovator. It’s pretty evident if you look at the history of the company’s products:

  • Mac is not the first personal computer. (HP and IBM launched their first models in the early 1970s, before Apple was even born)
  • iPod is not the world’s first MP3 player. (Listen Up by Audio Highway – anyone remembers the brand? – was launched already in 1996, five long years before Apple rolled out the first iPod)
  • iPhone is not the world’s first smartphone. (remember the stylus-controlled PDAs or the Nokia Communicator?)
  • iPad, as we all know, is not the world’s first tablet computer. (in fact, you’d swear that market had died by the time Apple launched it in 2010)

Instead, what Jobs seems to have managed to instil in the company is a pretty unique strategic approach of being a constant late mover in the marketplace and REALLY learning on the mistakes of others.

Coupled with the company’s strong brand association with user-friendliness, the acquired market knowledge would allow it to enter the market with a premium product that almost immediately took over as leader.

In other words, while maybe not necessarily the technology innovation god, Apple certainly is a great example of market engineering genius.

Think about the standard technology adoption lifecycle graph (above, courtesy of Wikipedia), with its early adopters, majority consumers, etc. and the rest of the pretty straightforward process. The unique thing about Apple seems to be that being a late mover in the market, not only does it jump onto the quantity bandwagon other industry players have built up already, but also – over and over again – manages to shift the whole curve upwards, pushing for mass adoption and grabbing a lot of that newly created mass market.

Add to it Apple’s conscious choices of the markets in which it decides to play, with barriers to entry (almost uniquely to them) low and you have a recipe for success. An element of vertical integration across the IT stack traditionally present in the company’s operational model also helped.

So, summing up – kudos to Mr. Jobs for his mastery in utilising this framework and managing to repeat it over and over again (and special appreciation for taking the risk with the iPad, as it seems the market for tablets was one step from extinction). We’ll all miss you Steve. But is this recipe for success going to disappear together with your departure as Apple’s CEO? I very much doubt it.

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