His vision and design instincts laid the groundwork for the device maker's historic turnaround, but now Jobs' company needs a different kind of leader to grow beyond its fanboy base.
Steve Jobs' stunning disclosure that he's taking a second extended medical leave in as many years raises big questions about Apple's future without its chief executive visionary, and about who should replace him if he is unable to return to work.
First, the bad news. The suddenness of Jobs' announcement, the fact that it's effective immediately, and that it was made despite the predictable market reaction (Apple shares were off 4.67% in pre-market trading Tuesday) all point to the fact that, whatever is wrong with Jobs, it's serious.
Possible scenarios include a return of the pancreatic cancer Jobs was first diagnosed with in 2003, or complications from a liver transplant he secretly underwent in 2008. Regardless, it's not out of the question that Jobs, just 55, is at this moment facing his mortality.
So let's dispense with sentimentality for now and take a hard look at what Apple needs to do without Steve Jobs. What are the characteristics that should define his successor, and who's out there who is potentially available and has those qualities?
The first thing Apple's board must do in building a succession plan is recognize that, contrary to the prevailing punditry, Apple doesn't need another visionary, rock star, or shaman-in-chief in its corner office. It shouldn't be looking for a Steve Jobs clone to replace the real Steve Jobs. It would be impossible to find one. Jobs' unique blend of geek cred and hipster appeal, along with flawless design instincts, can't be duplicated.
More to the point, Apple doesn't need and shouldn't want another Steve Jobs at this stage in its history—not as CEO, that is. A Jobs clone is the last thing Apple's customers, employees, and shareholders should be seeking. Jobs returned to Apple from exile in 1996 and rebuilt it into the hottest tech company on the planet with blockbusters like the iPhone, iPod, and iPad, which are redefining the way humans interact with a whole new class of smart devices.
But, healthy or not, Jobs' work at Apple is done. He's not the guy to take the company to the next level, and here's why.
On the consumer side, Jobs' not-invented-here phobia limits the ecosystem around Apple's products and puts a chokehold on growth. The Mac was relegated to niche status in the PC market because Jobs' insistence on complete control over the hardware and software environment made the platform pricey and lacking in applications compared with Windows PCs. Despite its head start, the same thing could happen to the iPad unless Apple loosens the reins on developers and embraces the notion that not all third-party hardware and software is crap until Apple says it isn't.
Google's open approach around Android already has made it a serious threat to both the iPhone and iPad in a very short time.