Hours after Apple emblazoned its website in October with pictures of its newly announced iPhone 4s, the homepage was changed to a single, sober black-and-white image of the company’s co-founder, accompanied by the words “Steve Jobs 1955-2011”.
The photograph captured his characteristic piercing stare through round, wire-framed glasses. His left hand was raised to his chin in a beard-stroking act of pondering.
In the context of his death and the suddenly uncertain future of his company, it was as if the image was showing that he retained a clear vision of the road ahead, but was wondering if Apple could negotiate it without him.
The Silicon Valley company had seemed to be heading for bankruptcy when he returned in 1996 after a decade away. Fifteen years on, it briefly overtook ExxonMobil as the world’s most valuable company.
As it closed out its fiscal year a few days before his death, Apple held nearly $82bn in cash reserves and had reaped profits of $26bn on record sales of $108bn.
Tim Cook, the new chief executive, has been the steady hand that everyone expected him to be since taking over in August, at the recommendation of Jobs.
“I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it,” wrote his predecessor in his letter of resignation.
The past 12 months have not been the most innovative of years for Apple, with the company literally whitewashing its lack of fresh designs with new white versions of the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. The contrast with 2010, when the iPad was introduced and there were radical redesigns for the iPhone, MacBook Air and Apple TV, is marked.
Analysts believe Apple can bounce back from any creative lull, with Jobs still providing the guiding hand.
“Apple’s road maps are designed for at least a three- to five-year cycle, so anything they are doing next year, or in the next two or three years, Steve would have had his stamp of approval on that,” says Tim Bajarin, president of the Creative Strategies research firm and a longstanding Apple watcher. “I think 2012 will be an exciting year – I expect a new design for the iPhone, significant enhancements in the iPad and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a radical new design for the MacBook Air.”
Those seem the obvious areas in need of addressing, with the Android operating system and Samsung as a handset maker overtaking iOS and the iPhone in worldwide smartphone sales. One tablet after another is taking on the iPad and MacBooks face competition from the new Ultrabook PC category and the arrival of Windows 8 in 2012.
“The iPad is facing unprecedented competition, the iPod is trending down and the iPhone is also facing impressive rivals, so it’s time for Apple to come up with its next horse to ride,” says Rob Enderle, technology analyst with the Enderle Group. “It’s the first time it’s needed to do this since Steve Jobs’ departure, so this will be critical in showing whether Apple has a near-term bright future or one of slow decline.”
The big expectation is that Apple will break into the television market, something that other technology companies such as Dell, Gateway, HP, Intel and Google have failed to do.
With Jobs saying in his posthumous biography that he had “finally cracked” the concept for a television experience, “it’s going to be interesting to see if Apple can succeed where others have not”, says Mr Enderle.