I was about to board an airplane Wednesday when Apple announced the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO and his replacement by Tim Cook. With a couple hours to think on my flight to Charleston it became clear to me that this story is far from over and the long-term leadership of Apple has not yet been determined.
There were rumblings a month ago about Apple board members interviewing possible successors to Steve Jobs. There’s nothing surprising in that, given Jobs’ poor health and the fact that the primary function of any board is hiring and firing CEOs. But it evidently didn’t go down well with Steve, perhaps because he had his own succession plan or simply because it showed a crack in Apple’s armor against news leaks. The story was quickly shot down.
Then a week ago the publication date of Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs was changed from March 6, 2012 to November 21, 2011. This shocked me, because the last I read Isaacson was still writing his book, which was due with the publisher, Simon & Schuster, in September. Huge biographies aren’t finished early or rushed to completion. Figuring the book will still be finished in September, that it will take a month to print and ship the books, this means that the publisher’s part of this process — the copy editing, designing, formatting, building indexes and so forth — is being reduced from a normal minimum of at least six months to less than six weeks. It makes business sense to do this, sure, but I don’t think that’s enough: some external force is pushing the deadline.
I suspect that force accelerating the publication may be Steve Jobs.
And now we have Jobs’ resignation. But he’s not going away, not signing-up for Apple COBRA benefits, just giving up to Cook his duties as CEO. Jobs will remain an Apple employee and chairman of the board. That makes him what’s called an executive chairman — one who is on the job every day. And that job he’ll be doing every day is overseeing Tim Cook’s execution of the corporate strategy designed by Steve Jobs.
This looks to me like Cook continuing to function in his Chief Operating Officer role. Oh he’ll get a big raise and an even bigger bonus, but my sense is that next week the guy really in charge will still be Steve Jobs. And the Apple board, satisfied that the succession question has been answered and their own fiduciary asses are covered (I suspect this is a big part of it) can go back to sleep.
But it isn’t a long-term solution. Steve Jobs won’t be around forever and a true successor will have to be chosen eventually. For all his administrative skills, Cook can’t fill Jobs’ visionary shoes, so I’d look for another leadership change, maybe tied to the release of Isaacson’s book.
I say this based not only on my understanding of Steve and the way things work in Cupertino, but also based on my reading of Isaacson’s last book, a very good biography of Albert Einstein. That book is what attracted Jobs to Isaacson as his biographer. This was no chance encounter. Steve doesn’t believe in them.
In his Einstein book Isaacson tried (and I think succeeded) to take us into the mind and ideas of the German physicist who changed the world. He’ll do the same with Jobs. And in the case of Jobs, the understanding that’s missing is less his maturing as a technology visionary and more the vision, itself. Where is Apple going? What’s the grand plan?
We know there is such a plan — there has to be, Apple’s moves have been too deliberate, if inscrutable, to be some executive random walk. But nobody near the top has ever tried to explain where the company is going, preferring to be mysterious instead. Bill Gates had Nathan Myhrvold write his book for him, but Steve is classier than Bill. I believe Walter Isaacson’s book will also function as Steve’s technology manifesto, part of his legacy.
Once we have the grand plan, then it may make more sense just who should lead that plan’s execution during what will clearly be Apple’s best quarter in its 34 year history. Steve Jobs is setting-up this (and us) for another grand reveal… just one more thing.