This past September, when Steve Jobs made his triumphant return to the public eye, he thanked precisely one Apple executive by name: Tim Cook, Apple’s chief operating officer.
At an event to introduce a new line of iPods, Jobs first informed a crowd of journalists, analysts, and Apple developers that he now possessed the liver of a “twentysomething liver donor who had died in a car crash.” Then he thanked Cook and the rest of the management team for “ably” running Apple in his absence. Cook, in turn, led a standing ovation for Jobs, his arms raised over his head from the front row of a San Francisco auditorium.
With Jobs back at work, the conversation has been postponed as to whether Cook, or anyone else, is prepared to fill Jobs’ shoes. “At Apple the hierarchy is determined by who Steve calls,” says a former Apple executive. “There’s a lot of value in ‘Steve said.'”
Larry Ellison, a CEO known to dislike the topic of succession, says of his friend, “He’s irreplaceable. He’s built a fabulous brand. He’s got a wealth of products. Whenever he leaves, I hope he retires in good health and he’s sailing off in his yacht in the Mediterranean. But they’re going to miss him terribly, because it’s a consumer products company. The product cycle is so fast.”
There are signs that Jobs has inculcated the troops enough to last awhile without him. “The organization has been thoroughly trained to think like Steve,” says someone with contacts among the Apple executive team. “That’s why the six months went so smoothly. People could envision, ‘This is what Steve would do.'”
Jobs, in fact, inspires far beyond Apple. Larry Page and Sergey Brin recently told The New Yorker that Jobs is their hero. When Jeff Bezos released Amazon.com’s smooth, shiny Kindle 2, the Jobs envy was obvious. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape, says he often evokes Jobs in his advice to entrepreneurs. He says, “The threshold for the release of the first product should be, ‘What would Steve Jobs do?'”
Looking out on the next decade, Jobs may well be asking himself a variation of that very question: After creating more than $150 billion in shareholder wealth, transforming movies, telecom, music, and computing (and profoundly influencing the worlds of retail and design), what should Steve Jobs do next? Given his penchant for secrecy and surprise and his proven brilliance, it’s a fair bet that he’ll let us know when he’s good and ready.