I've got a feeling that Steve Jobs isn't going to return to Apple. I don't have any inside information on the medical leave that he announced on Monday morning. Just consider my thoughts to be educated speculation based on watching the company for years.
Here's my theory: Since returning to Apple in 1996, Jobs has pushed the company to achieve one of his long-held goals—to turn computers into mainstream appliances as ubiquitous and easy-to-use as televisions, toasters, and food processors. He has been stunningly successful in achieving that vision. And now he's probably done. The tech world, today, looks more or less exactly like what Steve Jobs has always said the tech world should look like, and Apple is one of the most valuable companies in that universe. What more is there left for Jobs to do?
With the launch of the iPhone in 2007, Apple showed that you could build a powerful mobile computer without baking in the myriad hassles that we'd all grown to accept in computers—the pain of installing software, protecting it against malware, remembering where you stored certain files, and losing everything when you forgot to back it up. In 2010, the company proved that the same concept could work in a tablet, a form factor that had long eluded the rest of the industry. And now Apple seems bent on exporting these ideas to personal computing. The Mac now has an App Store and multi-touch interface. Over the next five years, it's sure to morph gradually into the kind of always-on, hassle-free machine we first saw in the iPhone.
Jobs hasn't just revolutionized the guts of our machines; he has also created better ways to buy and maintain all these gadgets. The retail stores that Apple opened in 2001 are some of the most profitable shops in the world. (Fortune once reported that the average Apple store generates sales of more than $4,000 per square foot.) One of the reasons they're so popular is the Genius Bar, the place where any Apple customer can get free tech support forever—something completely novel in an industry otherwise known for terrible customer service. During his tenure, Jobs presided over the creation of several other tech-retailing blockbusters—the iTunes Store is the world's dominant music retailer, and the App Store is the most popular platform for mobile software.
You may not like this vision. Tech nerds, especially, have long criticized Apple and Jobs for infantilizing users, for removing people's control over their machines in order to create more streamlined, easier-to-use gadgets. These complaints are often valid. But they're also moot, because Jobs has won.
It's true that Apple's rivals—Google, in particular—don't share Jobs' control-freak nature, but on the big things, these rivals have internalized Apple's vision of computing. Every smartphone on the market, for instance, now relies on a centralized app store to distribute software. All mobile operating systems try to hide or eliminate file folders, device drivers, and advanced settings, instead putting a premium on mainstream usability. Meanwhile, Microsoft is opening its own retail stores, and Dell is spending a fortune to improve the design and marketing of its once-generic-looking PCs. Those ideas are right out of Steve Jobs' playbook.
And perhaps that's why we shouldn't be too concerned about Apple's fortunes after Jobs' departure. For a Fast Company story I wrote last year, I spoke to many former employees about the secrets behind Jobs' success. They all cited his obsession with the smallest details of every big Apple launch. Unlike most tech CEOs, Jobs appoints himself the chief product manager of all major releases. He meets weekly with engineers and designers, and he lets loose a storm of criticism every week. He's just as much of a perfectionist as you'd imagine, and he won't release anything until he's sure the company has gotten it just right.
It will be difficult for Apple to find anyone else quite like Jobs. But in the same way that Jobs' vision for computing has spread through the tech industry, it's also become something of a religion at Apple. Every Apple executive—including Jobs' top lieutenants Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Jonathan Ive, and Scott Forstall—knows Jobs' approach to the future of computing: Make everything simpler, more universally usable, and less constrained by the narrow orthodoxies of the tech industry.
There is a story that Andy Hertzfeld, one of the engineers on the Apple team that developed the first Mac, tells in his book Revolution in the Valley. Back when they were coming up with the design of the computer, Jobs kept pestering engineers with ever-more-outlandish ideas. First he wanted the Mac to look like a Porsche. Another time, he went to Macy's and spotted a beautiful Cuisinart, and that became the new template for the Mac—now it had to look like a food processor, he told his team. That idea didn't pan out, but everyone knew what Jobs was going for. "It's got to be different, different from everything else," Jobs kept saying. Now, nearly 30 years later, Jobs has made good on that vision. His machines are just as popular and easy to use as high-end appliances and fast cars. If Jobs is looking to go out on a high note, this would be a pretty good time to do it.