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10.06.11

Will Apple Lose Its Magic?

A post-Steve Jobs Apple may be less risk-taking, even boring. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if the new leaders decide to play it safe, Apple’s products could become less special, says Dan Lyons.

Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, has been working hard to convince people both inside and outside Apple that the company will carry on exactly as it would if Steve Jobs had lived and remained in charge. “I want you to be confident that Apple is not going to change,” Cook wrote in a memo to employees when Jobs resigned as CEO in August.

No doubt Cook is sincere. But of course Apple will change. You can’t remove a brilliant, charismatic, larger-than-life figure like Jobs from an organization without changing the nature of the organization itself. Especially since Jobs’s own personality was so intricately enmeshed with the image of Apple. “Apple is Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs is Apple,” is how Charles Wolf, a renowned stock-market analyst and longtime Apple follower, once famously put it.

The real question is whether Apple will stumble now that Jobs, a notorious control freak and micro-manager, is no longer around to focus on all the tiny details and push people to make things a little better. Short term, most observers believe Apple will be fine. Sales of Macs, iPhones, and iPads are all growing and have huge momentum. Last quarter Apple posted record revenue and sales. The company has a strong management team and plenty of future products in the development pipeline.

“Apple is so well positioned that it will take the company years to blow it,” says Roger McNamee, who runs Elevation Partners, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. A few years ago, McNamee tried to take on Apple by investing in Palm when Palm was developing its Pre smartphone as a rival to Apple’s iPhone. Palm lost that fight, and McNamee grew new respect for Apple. “Even without Steve Jobs, Apple’s advantages are better products, the lowest cost structure, the most cash, and a really fine group of employees,” he says.

Over time, however, the absence of Jobs could start to make itself felt. Some claim Apple has already lost some focus as Jobs has been less involved in day-to-day operations lately. Ken Segall, a veteran advertising exec who crafted Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, gripes about what he calls sloppy design touches in the latest version of Apple’s operating system, OS X Lion, which has new calendar and address-book apps that Segall finds unbearably ugly. “I can’t believe Steve would have approved these things, and I can’t believe people who share Steve’s values would put that out into the world,” Segall says.

To be sure, these are tiny things. But tiny things have a way of adding up. The risk is that, without Jobs to play the role of enforcer-in-chief, Apple might lose some discipline and start to fray at the edges. Its products might seem a little less special, a little less magical.

There is also a risk that the ghost of Jobs will hover over the company, creating a culture where instead of just making decisions, people sit around debating, “What would Steve do?”—which is of course an impossible question to answer, because if you really could think like Steve, you wouldn’t be sitting in a room arguing with these other people.

Jobs famously did not rely on focus groups to help design products, relying instead on his instincts. But who will be Apple’s tastemaker now? Surely not Cook, the company’s former chief operating officer, who is regarded as a wizard at managing supply chains and logistics, but not possessed of a keen eye for design. Whoever takes over that part of Jobs’s role probably won’t be as good as he was. If they decide instead to play it safe and use focus groups, there’s a risk Apple’s products will become less special.

It seems almost certain that Apple will become more cautious and lose some of the appetite for risk-taking that Jobs brought to the company. The people who take over now will view their main job as making sure they don’t screw things up. But protecting the status quo was never high on Jobs’s agenda. He was usually looking to smash things up and make something new.

The people who take over now will view their main job as making sure they don’t screw things up.

One glimpse of how things might be going forward comes from the new iPhone that Apple just announced. For months Apple fans had been expecting the company to reveal a radically redesigned model called the iPhone 5, and were disappointed when instead Apple chose simply to update the iPhone 4 with better parts.

Sure, it was a smart business decision. Apple will save money by not having to retool its production line. But it was also kind of boring. That’s a word that didn’t get associated with Apple much during the Reign of Steve. Same for words like “safe,” and “sensible.” But we might be hearing them more often in the future.