Missing Steve Jobs: Absence makes the heart grow sadder

I've got a confession to make: I miss Steve Jobs.

Although I don't believe in worshipping at his altar alongside his legions of ardent fans, I can't deny that a Jobs keynote -- or anything he says, thinks or touches -- is more memorable simply because it came from him. While it's fair to say the vast majority of today's wonder-devices and services exist because of visionaries who had the guts to see beyond the here and now, it's also true that these very individuals have traditionally been quiet geniuses, content to drive their companies from behind a wall of corporate secrecy.

Steve Jobs has long been anything but quiet, and his absence from Apple's helm has taken the edge off of what remains one of the only bright spots not just in tech, but in business overall. Apple events are events because of Steve, and although Phil Schiller does a serviceable job keeping things rolling, he's no Steve. Years from now, long after the shiny devices demoed on stage have been recycled into park benches and bumpers for the next-generation Prius, YouTube denizens will still be analyzing Steve's delivery style, looking for clues into what made him the Pied Piper of the tech generation. No one else's keynotes will even be posted online. No one else matters to the Apple faithful as much as Steve does.

Hoping for a little history

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)For weeks, the Web was abuzz with conflicting rumors. Would Steve return to work on the WWDC stage? Would he come back from his medical sabbatical refreshed, recharged and, most importantly, healthy? Many of us carved out time on our calendars to tune in just in case the prodigal son returned once more. We wanted to say we witnessed another inflection point in the history of a company that's had more inflection points than most. We wanted to watch history unfold because, in the absence of D-Day and moon landings, a new iPhone announcement is what passes for history nowadays.

We wanted some good news to massage away the numbness we've been feeling from months of stress. Between collapsing domestic automakers, insolvent banks, and teetering insurance companies, Americans have largely lost faith in any industry's ability to create value and build trust. When formerly inviolable giants like General Motors and the Bank of America collapse into government-funded, shadow-filled remnants of their former selves, it's easy to forget that innovation still exists. But it does. And amid the economic gloom that coats the country like a grimy old winter coat, Apple, and by extension its aging wunderkind Steve Jobs, gives us hope that the game isn't over.

It isn't. Leadership is what allowed Apple to morph from a garage-based builder of easy-to-use machines into an early pioneer in the burgeoning home computer market. It was Steve Jobs who took his partner Steve Wozniak's designs and figured out how to market them beyond the traditional geek-hobbyist market. It was Steve Jobs who laid the foundation for transitioning the market from cryptic text-based machines to mouse-driven environments that anyone could use. It was Steve Jobs who survived a corporate sacking and spent over a decade in exile before returning to the company he founded in 1996 and rescuing it from near-oblivion with a relentless focus on keeping it simple, keeping it different, and keeping ahead.

In short, Steve Jobs has always been the kind of leader today's companies, in any industry, need. And the longer he stays away, the easier it becomes to imagine a future without him in the corner office.

Toward a Jobs-less future?

But is that such a bad thing? As buoyant as Apple's stock price has been in recent years, investors have occasionally sold shares off in droves whenever a Steve Jobs-less future became more apparent. Their tacit message to the company was that its CEO hadn't done enough to lay the groundwork for a smooth leadership transition. Critics say he didn't choose a successor, didn't train anyone, didn't lay out the company's future leadership roadmap. They accuse him of building a company based solely on his personality, and leaving it vulnerable to erosion after his inevitable departure.

“Amid the economic gloom that coats the country like a grimy old winter coat, Appleā€¦gives us hope that the game isn't over.”

Like all things Apple, however, things aren't necessarily as they appear. The company, like its founder, has raised corporate secrecy to a high art. Part of Apple's success to-date lies in its ability to masterfully control the release and retention of key pieces of information -- no small feat in a Web 2.0 age where Twittered and blogged gossip can go viral in minutes. Against this backdrop, there may very well be an elaborate leadership transition plan. But if it exists -- and I believe it does -- then it lives behind a veil of secrecy that'll never see the light of day until Apple sees fit to let us in on its plans.

I don't lose sleep over this. Apple has clearly done well since Steve ceded control. It's continued to introduce product improvements at an accelerating pace, continued to build its developer ecosystem, continued to grow its influence in a smartphone market it first entered only two years ago, and continued to bolster its position against large, aggressive competitors in a number of key market segments. Although Apple isn't immune to the corrosive effects of the current recession, it's faring better than most of its competitors and positioning itself nicely for the eventual turnaround. It's too early to tell how the long-term product pipeline will be affected by the shifting leadership situation, but early indications confirm that life will go on post-Steve.

A profitable and growing Apple is one thing. An inspirational, love-him-or-hate-him leader is quite another. As we pick over the wreckage of yesterday's companies and count how many taxpayer dollars now support them, it's fair to conclude that lousy leadership got these firms into trouble in the first place. Whatever happens to Steve Jobs, I remain hopeful that he returns in some capacity sometime soon, if for no other reason than to show those who follow that great leadership can still exist in this troubled age.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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