As stunning developments in the technology industry go, this one happened in a manner that felt inevitable. In yesterday afternoon's crisp, matter-of-fact letter, Steve Jobs told Apple's board and the world that he was unable to continue as the company's chief executive. He asked to serve as chairman, and recommended that Apple COO Tim Cook succeed him as CEO. And he said that Apple's best days were ahead of it and expressed gratitude to his coworkers.
Of course, one hopes that Jobs chose this particular week to step down as CEO not because his health left him no other option but because he felt Apple was ready to move on without his day-to-day involvement. If so, his timing was impeccable. The iPhone and iPad are enormous hits that have left most of Apple's competitors flummoxed; Apple's market capitalization, revenue and profit have all passed those of Microsoft. Simply put, it's this era's preeminent technology company.
In a sense, this week's news simply ratifies an existing reality. Since January 2009, Jobs' two medical leaves have curtailed his role for a total of around thirteen months. With Cook as acting COO and longtime Jobs associates such as design god Jonathan Ive and marketing honcho Phil Schiller in place, the company has continued to create blockbuster products, generate hoopla and generally thrive.
(See pictures of Steve Jobs' storied, visionary career.)
Thanks to the iPhone and iPad, Apple is extraordinarily well positioned to thrive in the post-PC era, especially if Jobs continues to chime in as chairman. But happens when a CEO famous for micromanaging every aspect of his companies' products officially steps back from managing at all?
It helps that Jobs' vision has been so consistent for so long. In 1976, when the 21-year-old Reed College dropout co-founded Apple Computer with legendary engineer Steve Wozniak and the famous-for-being-forgotten Ron Wayne, the personal computer industry barely existed. Yet Apple was soon at work on the Apple II, a groundbreaking system that reflected the genius of both Steves. In a period when nobody in the PC businesses seemed to have even heard of industrial design, Jobs gave the II a custom-designed case that still looks great. And its color graphics and sound capabilities were as dazzling at the time as the iPad is today.
Technologically, the Apple products of 1977, 1984, 1998 and 2011 are worlds apart. Philosophically, they all reflect the things that matter most to Steve Jobs: simplicity, style, obsessive attention to detail, and innovation that delivers tangible benefits. It's an approach that will serve Apple as well in 2025 as it does today.
It also helps that Jobs' legacy isn't only about the ideas he's had; it's about the countless ones he's rejected. Everyone's an expert on what Apple will or should do next, whether it's sensible-sounding (Apple is about to introduce an $800 laptop to compete with dirt-cheap Windows netbooks) or patently silly (Apple is going to buy Adobe,...