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What’s Next for Apple?

2011 October 16
by Greg Satell

When Steve Jobs passed away last week, we lost more than a legend.  He completely changed the way we  see technology.  Out went clunky gray machines and in came beautiful, friendly devices.

He leaves an astounding legacy, including the company he co-founded, got kicked out of, returned to and ultimately came to personify.  It’s no wonder that Apple shares dropped 5% when he resigned in August.
 
On the one hand, he leaves the company firing on all cylinders, with no debt, a market value of almost $400 billion and a product line that makes competitors go green with envy.  However, as Jim Collins has noted, companies with charismatic leaders tend to falter after their departure.  Here’s a quick overview of the pitfalls and the opportunities.

Acquisitions

Apple has grown mostly organically, with no major mergers and few acquisitions.  When they have bought companies, it has usually been to acquire specific technology that can be incorporated into existing products, such as Siri, whose software just debuted on the iPhone.  Their purchases come with price tags in the millions, not billions.

So with a cash hoard of $28 billion and another $8-$10 billion to roll in this quarter, not to mention their huge market value and untapped debt facility, Apple could swallow $100 billion in acquisitions, virtually without blinking an eye.  With all those sweet-talking, expense-account-wielding investment bankers chomping at the bit, who could resist?

Moreover, interesting possibilities abound.  Netflix, Hulu, Sony, TiVo and Pandora have all been mentioned.  Facebook is unlikely, but conceivable, as is Disney.  With their dominant product line, it’s hard to see how they can grow without going into a new category.  If they are unable to create one, they will have to buy into one.

Still, the moment they make their first headline grabbing acquisition they will cease to be Steve Jobs’ Apple.

Innovation Envy

Apple under Jobs has been a product innovator of rare talent.  They have redefined the categories they have entered and, despite some prickly practices, have inspired a following among consumers usually reserved for rock stars.  We’ve come to expect lines wrapping around the corner as people camp outside Apple stores for a new product launch.

However, one thing Apple is not, nor have they ever been, is a technological innovator. They boast no major corporate innovation labs, like Xerox PARC or IBM’s Watson Research Center and their overall R&D spending is pitifully low for a company of their size and stature.

 

So maybe developing basic technology is an area where they can invest some of their cash hoard.  In fact, without Jobs’ uncanny ability to pick and choose the next big thing from among existing components, they might just have to invest in more basic research.  Yet, again, an Apple with Nobel hopefuls running around wouldn’t be the Apple we know.

The Ecosystem

Probably the most troubling part of Jobs’ legacy is his affinity for closed ecosystems. While other tech giants, Google especially, make great efforts to be collaborative, Apple remains ultra-secret and eager to engage in feuds.  Companies like Microsoft, the aforementioned Google, Adobe and Samsung have all felt the sting of Jobs’ mercurial temper.

Further, it is in this area where Apple’s track record has been spotty.  Their unwillingness to tolerate Macintosh clones helped enable Microsoft’s rise to dominance, just as their closed architecture opened the door for Google’s Android operating system to take the lead in mobile.

The iAds mobile advertising platform has mostly been a bust due to poor reporting and high costs, just as their attempt to extort 30% of subscription revenues from publishers has slowed adoption to a crawl.  Clearly, if any other company behaved this way they would be scorned and this is one area where Jobs’ successors can greatly improve on his record.

Still, Jobs’ preference for closed ecosystems was more than just hubris.  He was a perfectionist who wanted to not just control every part of the user experience, but to make it live up to his exacting standards.  Would we want it any other way?

The Secret Sauce

The challenge facing Tim Cook, Jobs’ chosen successor is almost unimaginable.  He not only needs to run a $400 billion company with 50,000 employees in a highly competitive industry, he has to follow an icon.  Can he succeed?  Can anybody?

At the heart of that question lies an even bigger one:  What made Steve Jobs special? Many would point to his creativity, his flair and his natural marketing genius.  He certainly had all of those things, but I think Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak hit the nail on the head when he said it was his discipline.

After all, the pitfalls mentioned above are ones that Jobs navigated himself. He resisted the urge to go on an acquisition spree, even with all the super-cool tech companies floating around.  He innovated in his own way, didn’t seek to satisfy anybody but the consumer and patiently waited to launch the products that he wanted on his own schedule.

And it cost him.  He was thrown out of the company that he founded, endured years of isolation, privation and scathing criticism.  When he reached out to Walter Issacson to write an upcoming biography,  he encouraged those who knew him to speak honestly and was brutally candid himself.  He said it was for his kids, because they never really got the chance to know him.

In the end, Jobs seemed to find some peace.  The trials of his successors, however, are just beginning.

– Greg

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