Stephen Foley: The death of Steve Jobs may have left Apple with the wrong chief executive


Click to follow
The Independent Online

US Outlook: I may have underestimated the importance of love.

Like many followers of Apple, I have been torn about the wisdom of Steve Jobs' "I am the company" style of leadership. It has always seemed to me to be a reckless way of running a major corporation. Given how closely Mr Jobs guarded the secrets of his health, it made every rumour a share price-moving event, and it sets the company up for a crisis now that he has finally, inevitably, prematurely and tragically taken his bow.

Perhaps there was no getting round it. Because of the polymath's ability to be both visionary and details man, design guru and business genius, Mr Jobs was simply reflecting reality by being so dominant in the public's perception of Apple. His is the unfillable hole.

What the outpouring of emotion this week has brought into focus is the benefit of Mr Jobs having trained so much of the spotlight on himself. He was not so much personifying Apple, a corporation of 46,600 employees and a deep bench of senior executives, as anthropomorphising it. By making it human, we were able to love it.

Mr Jobs worked furiously in his final years to ensure the culture he created would outlive him. We learnt yesterday that he created an "Apple University" inside the company to educate executives, using case studies of his most successful product development processes and launch strategies. Tim Cook, of course, was long ago hand-picked to take over; and Mr Jobs' resignation statement, a too-short six weeks ago, referred to Apple's "succession plan" as if this were the most normal company in the world.

But has Mr Jobs also underestimated the importance of love? Mr Cook, for all his undoubted talents as a deputy – as the operations man, the spreadsheet-poring, supply chain-reforming foil to a visionary boss – cannot inspire the same sort of adoration. Apple's customers and those who write about it in the media or the analyst community immediately cast a more sceptical eye over product launches, as they did over this week's underwhelming iPhone 4S. The "reality distortion field" that Mr Jobs was often described as erecting is gone with him – and what was that reality distortion field if it wasn't the effect of our being blinded by love?

Reading through the acres of newsprint and web pages filled with tributes to Mr Jobs' genius and disquisitions on the future of Apple, I kept cycling back to one name: Jonathan Ive. He is a shy Brit, the ego-less head of design at Apple, and the man responsible for the sleek, simple design of the iPad; the iPhone and iPod before it; and the product that made his reputation, the iMac. That gumdrop-shaped machine, launched in 1998, changed everything for Apple.

iMacs were the first objects of consumer lust that the company had produced in a decade. I was speaking this week to a former merchant at the retailer Target, who said he immediately ordered telephones and other household devices to match the range of translucent colours that Mr Ive had come up with. "We sold a lot of telephones that year."

These anecdotes, this history, and his well-known refusal to accept anything less than perfection, make Mr Ive the personification of the Apple culture and the real heir to Steve Jobs. This is tragedy compounded. Apple may now have the wrong chief executive, if love has anything to do with it.