A Year After Steve Jobs' Death, Apple Reaches a Crossroads

Apple had an incredible year without Steve Jobs, but its long-term future looks hazy, analysts say.

By Jon Schuppe and Lisa Fernandez
|  Thursday, Nov 15, 2012  |  Updated 9:50 AM PDT
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Cupertino, home of Apple Headquarters, will be remembering Steve Jobs, on the one year anniversary of the co-founder's death, Friday.

Cupertino, home of Apple Headquarters, will be remembering Steve Jobs, on the one year anniversary of the co-founder's death, Friday.

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You could say that Steve Jobs still guides Apple, at least in spirit.

Jobs died a year ago Friday, and since then, the business he co-founded in 1976 has become the world's most valuable company. Its stock has risen more than 70 percent. Its new iPhone 5 is on sale in 30 countries, where millions of people have bought it. It has flexed its massive muscle in court, winning a $1 billion patent verdict against rival Samsung in August.

Apple is, in many respects, stronger and better than ever, analysts say.

And yet the company stands at a crossroads. Without Jobs serving as its functional and spiritual guru, Apple's long-term future is hazier. It is still reeling from the internal turmoil created by his absence. It suffers from what many analysts describe as unrealistic expectations from Wall Street and the inevitably disappointing returns. And someday, the pipeline of Jobs-generated ideas will run dry.

"The real question for Apple is not the next year, but where will they be 10 years from now?" said Neil Hughes, managing editor at Apple Insider, a website that tracks all things Apple.

He pointed out an audio recording that emerged on the Internet this week of Jobs giving a 1983 speech in which he basically predicted how the following 25 years of computing would evolve.

"He saw it happening, and that's why the products are so successful — the other companies were resting on their laurels, and he saw an opportunity to do what the other companies weren't doing," Hughes said. "But as the world changes and evolves, can Apple still be the place to make those game changers? That remains to be seen."

Fortunately, the obsessively secretive Jobs, who liked to create an air of mystery in everything he did, thought so far ahead that many of his concepts – an Apple television, perhaps, or a cable box, or an internet radio application — are likely still being tinkered on in Apple's labs and could still come to fruition. Theoretically, those ideas would help guide the company for the next few years. What happens after that is up to a team of executives who for most of their careers worked in Jobs' shadow.

It begins with its new CEO, Tim Cook, whom Jobs hand-picked before succumbing to pancreatic cancer. Under Cook, Apple has become more transparent, more charitable and more responsive to the concerns of customers, workers and environmentalists.

But Cook is not Steve Jobs.

Cook is in many ways Jobs' opposite: he prefers to share the spotlight with his management team, and he is regarded less as an idea man than as the one who makes sure everything is assembled, packaged and sent to stores on time.

Another difference became apparent in the way Cook handled problems associated with the September release of the iPhone 5 and the corresponding new iOS software. The software replaced the popular Google Maps application with Apple's own version, which was buggy and less versatile.

Consumers complained, and Cook apologized.

By contrast, in 2010, when Jobs encountered a backlash to his iPhone 4's antenna problems, he offered a workaround but not much else.

"Steve Jobs never apologized," said Leander Kahey, editor of the San Francisco-based Cult of Mac. "He told people they were holding the phone wrong."

Some people saw the Google Maps fiasco as a sign of an impending decline. Others say it will turn out to be a mere blip, just like the antenna mishap.

"Steve created this culture of innovation and excellence that I think will live on," said Eric Savitz, San Francisco bureau chief of Forbes magazine. Consumers, he pointed out, still seem to be quite happy with the new Apple products. "Just look at the lines outside the Apple stores."

Kahey said that despite the differences between Jobs and Cook, "nothing has changed" in terms of Apple's culture.

"People want to jump to conclusions that things are going wrong at Apple," he said. "And if I look back, Steve Jobs’ career was full of controversy."

Kahey said Apple’s future will remain bright and strong for a long time.

"Steve Jobs embedded his personality into the company," Kahey said. "And all the key players are still there."

Left out of most of such discussions are everyday users of Apple products — the non-experts who don't contemplate Jobs' legacy when they consider buying the next iPhone.

People like Michelle Swanson-Calhoun, who lives in Los Gatos, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. She said Jobs' death saddened her, but it wouldn't affect her decision to buy another iPhone or iPad. "It’s just a product," she said.

Perhaps it is a testament to Jobs' work that Swanson-Calhoun and millions like her now take Apple's groundbreaking technology for granted.

On Friday morning, visitors to Apple's home page were directed to a video tribute to Jobs. It ends with a message from Cook.

"Our values originated from Steve and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple. We share the great privilege and responsibility of carrying his legacy in the future."

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