Without founder Apple will lose edge

ONE of the rooms in my father’s house is full of old Apple products, a kind of museum of Macs gone by. Those made between 1985 and 1997 – the period of Steve Jobs’ exile – are rubbish. The worst, such as the Newton, an early tablet computer, are so bad that they are pristine, having barely been touched; one day I plan to sell them to a collector to fund my retirement.

My dad, like other Apple aficionados, only bought them out of misplaced loyalty and a loathing of all things Microsoft. It wasn’t much fun being an Apple fan in those long barren years, and all but the most fervent gave up and bought a PC.

This is the reason that Jobs is so closely identified with the success of Apple. Without its founder at the helm, the firm lost its mojo, and many fear it will do so again. Sadly, I fear so too. Its decline won’t be immediate – Jobs has built an impressive empire and his successor Tim Cook is a formidable operator – but in time its lead over rivals will narrow, and eventually disappear.

To say that Jobs led from the top is such an understatement that it almost misses the point entirely. Every product had to be built to his specification alone, down to the very last detail. One story has him firing an entire team because they designed a prototype that had a single screw on display, when he had expressly ordered that none should be visible. It is probably an apocryphal tale, but like all apocryphal tales it speaks the truth.

What defines Jobs is his paternalistic approach to the consumer. He passionately wants the best for them, but he fervently believes they don’t know what they want. Hence his hatred of focus groups or market research of any kind.

Such confidence is rare, especially when it so often flies in the face of received wisdom. Jobs bet the house on the iPod, for example, when the music industry was moving the entirely opposite way. Sound quality had reached a zenith, thanks to the CD, combined with bigger and better hi-fi equipment – but the iPod was smaller and the compressed MP3s it played impaired that hard-won sound quality.

When phones were getting smaller, Jobs brought out a bigger one. When every other technology firm was opening up, he was closing down, building a wall around everything Apple. When others had all but given up on the tablet market, Jobs entered it and made a fortune.

Such confidence is probably ingrained at Apple, but it counts for nothing if it is misplaced. Unless there is someone who can call it right on every occasion – even when all the evidence suggests they’re wrong – Apple will lose its edge. Unfortunately for Apple’s investors, and its fans, Jobs is one of a kind.

david.crow@cityam.com