What happens to Apple now?
Despite Steve Jobs stepping down from CEO spot to become chairman, Apple will be steady for the short term. But Apple stands to lose four key things in the long term.
But Apple is a company with more than 45,000 employees, including some of the greatest product designers, engineers, and marketers of any company in the world.
Apple has an incredible product pipeline: the iPad 2 is the only tablet that matters, the iPhone takes the lion's share of profits in the smartphone market, and the Mac is the only personal computer brand that's growing as the rest of the market is shrinking.
All of those products have at least one, maybe two, more updates already in the pipeline.
Strategically, Apple is in the right place: both Google (with the Motorola acquisition) and Microsoft (with its Nokia partnership) have basically acknowledged that they need both hardware and software to compete in smartphones.
Apple is behind those two companies in terms of online services -- the third part of the equation -- but at least it's recognized the problem and will try to address it with iCloud.
But two or three years down the road? If Jobs does not come back, here's what Apple will lose:
- The ultimate arbiter. A lot of big companies are bogged down with bureaucratic infighting -- it's endemic at Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard's botched earnings/strategy/acquisition announcement last week point to political problem there as well. That has never been a problem with Steve Jobs in control of Apple. Everybody there respects him, he knows what every part of the company is doing, and he's not afraid to make big changes when something's broken. Other CEOs may be as smart and as strong-willed, but they can't possibly garner the same level of respect as the founder who returned to bring his company back from near death.
- The product planner. Jobs is obsessed with simplicity and leaving things out: he culled the Mac product line down to a couple models when he returned, refused to let the Apple mouse have two buttons, and insisted that the iPhone NOT try to do everything at once. Other Apple employees understand that, but it's unknown whether anybody else will be able to execute that art as well as Jobs has. Especially when product groups and individuals see a new and fresh chance to gain status and get their ideas heard (see last point).
- The recruiter and magnet. Apple already lost its retail planner Ron Johnson, and product design head Jony Ive was reportedly making noises about leaving as well. More to the point, everybody wants to work at Apple today. That's party because of the company's record of success -- but it's probably also in good part because of the mythos of Jobs.
- Pop culture icon. Steve Jobs's keynotes are packed with press -- including popular press. Will the media fawn over Tim Cook or Phil Schiller when they talk? Don't count on it. And that means that you might not see every Apple product announcement featured on the local TV news as it was today.
Apple will still be a juggernaut for a long time. But the company's competitors have to be viewing today's news with at least a small twinge of ... let's call it anticipation.