Among the many tributes to Steve Jobs on his passing, perhaps the most common theme is the man’s prowess as a designer. And, indeed, from the Mac to the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad (if not so much Newton, or Lisa, or iTV, or …) Jobs’ talent for matching form to function was nothing short of astounding. Asking his successors at Apple to maintain the standards he set is asking a lot. But for arguments’ sake, let’s assume they can do it.
Unfortunately for Apple, meeting the design challenge will only get them part way home in terms of living up to their now departed leader’s legacy. Because as good as Jobs may have been as a designer, he was even better as a conceptualizer: which is to say, his conceptual prowess was at least the equal of his design flair, and while I can – well, sort – imagine that Jobs’ successors at Apple can design a better iPod, iPhone and iPad, I really struggle with the idea that they will be able to conceive of the next, well, iNext. And, ultimately (which is to say probably within a year or two or maybe three at the outside) Apple will have to come up with a compelling iNext to keep the Apple juggernaut on top of the tech world for the next few years after that.
Design, ultimately, is a craft, and Jobs was a superb craftsman. The ability to conceive something utterly new in function as well as form, on the other hand, is the mark of true genius. Making a better iPad is a big task, but not as remotely challenging as conceiving the notion of the iPad in the first place. Even conceding that Apple has the talent to live up to Jobs’ standards in the design of the next iPhone, it strains credulity, I think, to believe that anyone at Apple can match Jobs standards and timing in conjuring the iNext.
Look at it this way. Suppose you had to rank three teams in terms of how likely each was to conceptualize a blockbuster iNext. Team one was the Apple team with Jobs. Team two was Jobs, and team 3 was the Apple team without Jobs. Go ahead, rank them. Doesn’t your ranking (we all came up with the same ranking, right?) tell you something about Apple’s likely longevity as the center of the consumer technology universe – or at least as the most valuable company on the planet?