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Tom Keane

Without Jobs, it won’t be the same

Steve Jobs in 2008. Steve Jobs in 2008. (AP)
By Tom Keane
August 30, 2011

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FANS OF Apple Inc. say Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO is no big deal, predicting that the company will still retain its cutting-edge ways. Technology analyst Farhad Manjoo is typical of those claimants, writing in Slate that “Apple today operates in the image of Steve Jobs - and it’s going to remain that way long after he’s gone.’’

It’s as if the person no longer matters. The organization that is Apple - almost 50,000 employees strong - has somehow absorbed the character and genius of Jobs. The real flesh-and-blood man is no longer even needed.

But this is a claim of fantasy. However smart a company Apple is, individuals still matter in the real world.

Now 56, Jobs co-founded Apple Computer in 1976 when he was just 21. Booted out the door in 1985 after a power struggle, he founded NeXT Computer (a financial failure but technological triumph) and purchased what became Pixar from Lucasfilm (both a financial and technological triumph). Meanwhile, Apple’s fortunes had suffered and, in a move of embarrassed desperation, its board in 1996 asked Jobs back.

Over the next 14 years, Jobs unleashed a torrent of products - including the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad - that profoundly remade consumer electronics. None of these was as much ground-breaking in technology as it was innovative in design. Jobs has an uncanny ability to think about devices from the perspective of the user and of understanding the importance of beauty and simplicity.

And now the guy who’s done all that is, effectively, gone. One can understand the motivation of investors, employees, and even Apple fans who adamantly assert that Jobs’s departure won’t matter. It’s in their interest to say this, so they rely upon clichés about how the company is bigger than any one man and how no individual is irreplaceable.

And they’ve got support from those who think the future of innovation belongs to corporations and crowds.

It is fashionable to think of businesses as almost living entities themselves. Mitt Romney’s assertion that “corporations are people’’ was bone-headed politically but reflects the widespread notion that organizations are far more than the people that run and staff them. And that couples with another, seemingly new trend: a faith in the wisdom of crowds. Recent years have given us phenomena such as crowd-sourcing (taking a job originally performed by an individual and outsourcing it to a large group of people), crowd-funding (having groups choose which inventions to back) ,and crowd-creation (group innovation). At the heart of all of these is a belief that there is wisdom, creativity, and insight from the collective that is not possible from one person or small group of individuals.

Count me a skeptic. The fact that at one point 62 percent of Americans weren’t sure Barack Obama had been born in the United States itself should make one reconsider group wisdom. Granted, something like crowd-sourcing - really just an updated version of the company suggestion box - can mean that people who might not otherwise look at a problem will tackle it. But group thinking itself tends to hover around the middle. Voices at the extreme - those who would urge a radically new way - quickly get drowned out.

It is hard to imagine that a crowd of people would have come up with the inventions that Jobs pushed through Apple. Indeed, the fact that so many other well-established technology companies did not do so speaks not only to Jobs’ singular genius but also to the flaws of corporations themselves. Once they have figured out a mission, they can be very good at managing and executing. They are not especially good at constant innovation, however. They are often so focused on protecting the business they already have that they can’t take advantage of whatever might be new.

This, I fear, is Apple’s fate. Steve Jobs seems happy with Tim Cook, his pick to succeed him, and Cook may well have Jobs’ sense of originality. More likely, though, he is a good manager. That will do for a while; there are rumors Jobs left behind plans to remake television. But eventually Apple will be eclipsed by some new entrant founded by an enfant terrible - in other words, by someone like Steve Jobs.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.