When Apple made its annual tranche of product announcements in San Francisco last week, few observers were focused on the products. The big question was one that the Californian technology giant has rarely had to answer: Where was Steve Jobs?
Last month, Apple announced that its emblematic and charismatic chief executive would not be making his annual address to the industry at Macworld. It was the first time he had skipped the event since returning to the company in 1996, leading to rampant speculation about his health.
Despite constant attempts to quell interest, Apple eventually revealed the truth — Jobs was suffering from a “hormonal imbalance,” itself the result of life-saving cancer surgery in 2004.
For many, Apple’s massively successful brand is synonymous with Jobs, who co-founded the company in 1976 and is seen by most as indispensable. This perception is largely shared by Wall Street, which has become obsessed with the company’s long-term future. What if Jobs is no longer at Apple? Could it survive — and who would take over?
Predicting Jobs’s successor is almost impossible. Even trying to guess who is in favor and who isn’t would tax seasoned Kremlinologists, who could divine power struggles from the positions of USSR leaders on the balcony at the May Day parade.
Apple-watchers do the same. Late last year when Tony Fadell — who in 2001 brought the idea of the iPod and the iTunes store to Apple — left the company, some people looked back and found his downfall foreshadowed in a Jobs demonstration of the new iPhone in 2007: When showing how to delete a contact from the phone’s address book, it was Fadell’s name that Jobs erased.
The problem for those trying to understand who might be Apple’s next CEO is that the company’s board is so tight-knit. When Jobs regained control in 1997 after a 10-year exile, Apple had become notorious for leaks. Jobs, who has an innate understanding of the value of surprise, changed that completely by instituting a simple rule: Loose lips sink ships. This makes it hard for observers to pick apart the succession process, particularly among internal candidates. What is clear is that the executive team around Jobs has been in place for a comparatively long time.
Some are confidantes who have been in his coterie for more than a decade. Others predate Jobs’s return to Apple, such as Phil Schiller, head of product marketing, who stood in for his boss last Tuesday, and Jonathan Ive, the British designer who has won awards for his work on the iMac, iPod and other products.
The company has not been riven by boardroom rows and power struggles and there is none of the usual personal dynamics found in a top-flight company trying to thrive. Instead, Apple’s board has a collegiate approach: Every Monday morning senior executives meet to go over in minute detail every aspect of the business, including which models of which iPods are selling well or not.
But for all that, Jobs is still identified as the driving force and vital to Apple’s commercial and financial success. Following false reports last October that he had had a heart attack, former Wall Street analyst Henry Blodget estimated that Jobs added 20 percent to the stock’s value.
So who would take his place? The question of succession had not been raised until Jobs’s brush with pancreatic cancer, a rare and treatable form that was diagnosed in October 2003, but only treated — after Jobs didn’t respond to a special diet — in summer 2004. That, and subsequent speculation culminating in last week’s confirmation of his latest problems, threw the matter into sharp relief.