The news that Steve Jobs has stepped down as chief executive of Apple, 14 years after returning to the company he co-founded to lead one of the most dramatic turnrounds in corporate history, marks the end of an era.
From long-time underdog to the new king of Silicon Valley, Mr Jobs had assumed an improbably outsized influence over the technology industry. “It will be a different Apple from tomorrow morning,” said Richard Doherty, a technology analyst and long-time follower of the company.
That echoed a widely voiced view late on Wednesday as news of Mr Jobs’ resignation letter, in which he said he was no longer able to carry out his duties as chief executive, spread quickly.
With his latest period of medical leave having already stretched out since the start of this year, eclipsing an earlier absence in 2009, confirmation that the tech industry’s most closely watched leader was to quit carried with it a sickening air of inevitability.
“There is an emotional impact here,” said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The company is recognising it is stepping into the next phase,”
Exactly what the departure means for the future of both Apple and the consumer technology industry it has led, however, was a question on which there was far less agreement.
For the time being, at least, most observers expect a continuation of the steady drumbeat of big new product announcements from Apple that in recent years have set the agenda for the entire consumer technology world.
Rivals have come to hang on every detail of Mr Jobs’ set-piece product launch events, looking to them for cues about the probable next big consumer technology markets – though the barrage of lawsuits that have hit the smartphone and tablet computer industry suggest that sometimes the emulation may have become too slavish.
“He’s redefined consumer electronics this century,” said Mr Doherty.
Mr Jobs’ departure will have “no impact from a product strategy point of view for probably a couple of years”, said Mr Golvin. “The next wave of [Apple] products has already been designed.”
That existing pipeline of products could enable Apple to sustain what has already become, with the iPhone and iPad, an impressive momentum. If it includes a better way of bringing the internet to TV screens – something Apple has worked on with limited success so far – it could also create a big new business that would produce a gusher of cash for Apple over the next five years, said Mark Anderson, a US technology analyst and chief executive of Strategic News Service.
Beyond products already in development, however, the post-Jobs era at Apple raises bigger questions.
Rather than relying on customer research, the Apple co-founder pushes his senior managers hard to develop new products that are ahead of what the company’s own customers have asked for, says Mr Doherty. He also keeps an iron grip on the approval process for new products, refusing to let new Apple gadgets see the light of day until he is personally satisfied that both the technology, and its application, are ready.
“There is no way to replace the world’s greatest product genius – that’s what Jobs is,” said Mr Anderson. “I really think it’s critical.” Apple may not face the sort of immediate decline it suffered when Mr Jobs was forced out of the company in the mid-1980s, but the rudderless period that followed his departure then should serve as a warning, he added.
Much will depend on the leadership group that Mr Jobs has built over the past decade, and whether he has been able to instill the disciplines needed to prolong the string of hits that have defined Apple’s success.
Below Tim Cook, who has been named chief executive and been given a seat on Apple’s board, the well-regarded leadership group includes Phil Schiller, head of marketing; Jonathan Ive, chief designer; and Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of iOS software. In a rare loss, Ron Johnson, head of Apple’s retail stores, recently quit to run US retailer JC Penney.
With his relentless drive to lead, cajole and sometimes harass his followers to achieve the sort of breakthroughs for which Apple has become famous, Mr Jobs has created an impressive machine that should outlast his day-to-day leadership, said Mr Doherty. “There aren’t many organisations that have that level of striving for perfection,” he added.
But, without its presiding genius, Apple’s pursuit of perfection is about to face its severest test.