Why Apple might be better off without Steve

I know there are probably already nasty emails on their way to my inbox based solely on the headline of this post. Apple better off without Steve? How is that possible? It’s difficult to even think about the iconic consumer electronics company — now so much more than just a computer maker — without thinking about Steve Jobs. Apple is Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs is Apple. That’s one of the main reasons why so many people (me included) were so concerned that the company come clean about Jobs’ health over the past few months — because he is so intertwined with the company in people’s minds and certainly in investors’ minds. Every time he appears in a photo looking gaunt, the share price tumbles. How could the company possibly be better off without a man who is a strong CEO, visionary genius and celebrity spokesman all rolled into one?

For the record, I’m not saying that Steve Jobs should cut his ties to Apple, and I realize that speculating about his departure is going to be seen as in bad taste by many people, given his personal health issues. I wish him nothing but the best, and I hope he is around for many years to come. There is no question that Jobs’ vision and laser-like focus on usability and value have worked miracles on Apple’s business model and its share price over the past few years — miracles that many seasoned industry observers never imagined were even possible. So how could not having him around be a good thing for the company? Just stay with me for a minute.

Let me put it this way: While Apple is a successful and widely-admired company with some excellent products, in many ways it is also pretty close to being a cult, as more than one person has argued (with the latest being Dan “Fake Steve Jobs” Lyons, who writes in his recent Newsweek column about how the company is treated with kid gloves by most of the mainstream media). This is hardly surprising, when you think about how low Apple had fallen just a few short years ago. Anyone who can take a company like that and turn it into a market-leading powerhouse with a stock-market value of $75 billion is going to inspire not just admiration but an almost religious devotion.

There’s no question that this has helped Apple immeasurably over the past few years, as it has climbed out of the hole it was in to become a market leader. Devotion to Apple products is so intense that the company has had to do virtually no traditional marketing — or at least very little — nor does it have to focus all that much on crude market instruments such as price. As Apple has started to make the transition from being just a small, niche computer maker into a Sony-style (s SNE) consumer electronics player, however, it has arguably moved beyond where the personal magnetism of Steve Jobs or the passion of Apple acolytes can take it. Not everyone knows the story of how Steve rescued the company, and not everyone is as mesmerized by his keynotes as Apple devotees.

My argument is this: If the company wants to continue expanding its market reach, it needs to move beyond being just an extension of Steve Jobs and his vision. It needs to find other ways to sell itself and its products, apart from just relying on the inherent desire that Apple fans feel for anything that comes out of the company’s Cupertino headquarters and the personal magnetism of its glorious leader. In other words, it needs to grow up.

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