Cupertino funk, part I: O Captain, where art thou?

On October 5, 2011, the vultures returned to One Infinite Loop. Having once taken up what seemed like permanent residence in Cupertino during the Sculley years, their numbers dwindled a bit with the 1998 release of the iMac, dropped further in number with the 2001 introduction of the iPod, and went on complete sabbatical when the iPhone landed in 2007. In roughly a decade, Apple had gone from being the quaint little company with 5% market share to buying The Lonely Mountain so Smaug could guard its hoard of cash.

Then Steve Jobs—Apple's co-founder, prodigal son, savior and carnival barker—died. Surely, many assumed, the loss of Jobs would be the catalyst for Apple's journey from arbiter of technology and design to just another member of the gadget-proffering herd. Never mind that Jobs supposedly left behind an approved product roadmap that covered the next four years, or that he had filled the ranks of upper management with like-minded acolytes. No, the passing of Apple's leader was step one in the march to parity in a world where parity equaled failure.

Except, of course, it wasn't. The iPad 3 and iPhone 5 launches were typical Apple smashes. The Retina display migrated to the MacBook Pro. Another dot-release of OS X came and went. Apple's stock cracked the $700-a-share line. Life was good. The naysayers were wrong. Everything was coming up Milhouse.

Except, of course, it wasn't. The past few months have seen the cracks in Apple's armor expanding, with a tumbling stock price (relatively speaking) and a general sense of malaise in techland about the company. I've always believed that the only company that could ever, at this point, beat Apple was Apple. And it's starting to feel like they just might be up to the challenge. I believe two main causes are at work here: a lack of leadership and a lack of joy.

Regarding the former, it's hard to fault the leadership at Apple too much. They were in the unenviable position of attempting to fill in, collectively, for techland's Wizard of Oz (sorry, Woz). Good luck with that. Basically, they had two plays: continue boldly going where none (or only smaller companies they could buy out) had gone before, or simply try not to fumble the ball. Opt for the former, and they'd open themselves up to immense ridicule as second-class Steves if their efforts failed—never mind that Jobs didn't come close to batting 1.000 and never seemed overly bothered by it; he just kept pressing on. Opt for the latter, and they could hopefully ride out the Jobs product roadmap with nary a hiccup, bank even more cash, and be lauded as the keepers of the Apple flame. If only.

Obviously, Tim Cook and company chose the latter. Which, from a business school mentality, made perfect sense. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the public doesn't readily behave like a bunch of recent MBA grads. Apple was in a position very, very few companies ever are—its leader literally embodied the brand. Jobs was Apple and Apple was Jobs. This singularity undoubtedly swayed the Apple succession team not to try and "replace" Steve. After all, how could you, right? But therein lies the rub. Regardless of how qualified, adept, and in-sync "the team" may have been, in the end that's what they were: a team. A management collective. A, shudder, committee.

At any other company on the planet, that may have been enough. But Apple—the successful version—was a never a faceless tech company offering its version of the future to the marketplace. It was, to the public, the vision of one man who seemed to know what they wanted before they did. A man who got things done by hook or by crook and inspired equal parts awe and fear. He was always bold but seldom, in public at least, brash. You could think Jobs was completely snowing the folks inside Moscone West as he revealed just how magical the latest iThing was, but you couldn't say he was disingenuous. Maybe that's just a side effect of, instead of drinking the corporate Kool-Aid, being the one brewing it. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, consumers abhor the bland. (Pipe down, Camry owners.) Right now, the people on the stage during Apple keynotes appear smart and earnest, but not quite prepared to go once more into the abyss.

Could Apple have found a similar visionary to step into the void left by Jobs's passing? Probably not. Cults of personality are hard to replicate. But they could've put a greater emphasis on the idea that one person of vision was steering the ship, even if all the ideas weren't coming from his brain. People—the public, the pundits, the stockholders—didn't need the second coming of Steve; they needed the second coming of a powerful leader. The Joshua to Steve's Moses, if you please. Without one, it still seems as if Apple is reporting to a ghost and not doing a very good job at it, at that. No, they can't sit around navel-gazing and asking, "What would Steve do?" But they can be sure of what Steve wouldn't do—simply iterating instead innovating.

Tune in next week—same Hole time, same Hole channel—for reflections on why a certain, as the French say, I-don't-know-what has left Apple products.



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