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Steve Jobs - Apple renaissance man

Return to the glory days?

Analysis Apple clearly missed Steve Jobs desperately from the point that he left Apple in the 1980s to the point when he returned in 1997, fully taking the reins in 2000 when he dropped the "Interim" from his "Interim CEO" title. Apple floundered in his absence and continued to flounder for a while after his return. Fixing what was broken took quite a while and it probably isn't all fixed yet.

Nevertheless it is clear that the Apple innovation dynamic is back in full force and Steve has a number of real business achievements which demonstrate that innovation is the primary business driver of the company. (Eat your heart out Hewlett-Packard). The surprising thing about Apple is that it punches well above its weight.

Jobs' initial short term fix in 1997 was to redesign the physical form of the Apple PC and manufacture it in several colours. It was easy to deride this, but Jobs' understanding of the consumer PC market was spot on. It worked as a short term fix, indeed it was a little vignette of business brilliance, because in PR terms, it immediately put Apple back on the map as an innovator. It also lifted sales considerably.

This gave Apple the breathing space to fix deeper problems, such as the need to get the OS right and the need to hammer out a road map to put the Apple PC business back on track.

Since then we have seen a gradually increasing stream of good ideas - and a willingness to get to market first with "risky" products. "Risky?" - well maybe. Was it risky to be a pioneer of wireless? Was it risky to produce a music player (when you are not close to being a Sony)? Was it risky to launch a web-based music store? Well, yes and no. All of these things were risky because it is hard to get it right first time and you may simply validate an infant market for others to exploit. But Apple has managed to get it right enough and with the iPod it has a phenomenal success on its hands that must give its competitors in the music market sleepless nights.

Odd though it may seem, given the publicity it has garnered, the iPod is still a fringe business compared to the major business of PCs and laptops, where Apple is out-innovating the competition in a remorseless way. The Mac OS X is now in place, with a user interface that makes Windows look primitive. The Powerbook laptops are selling well and Apple recently released the new iMac G5.

In case you know nothing of it, this is, in my view, an excellent - almost awesome - product. Take, as read, the fact that it outperforms the Intel competition by a big factor and that the OS is powerful and it supports all important applications from office software through to video manipulation. For many users those factors will count in a big way, but there is another factor that probably trumps them all: The iMac G5 is phenomenally well designed.

It is nothing more than a flat screen with a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse. The screen houses the DVD/CD reader/writer and it houses the speakers that bounce sound off the surface on which the monitor stands. Naturally it also houses the CPU, disk drive and wireless boards. In fact there's only a single wire which is the power lead. My guess is that the whole PC industry will be producing devices like this in a year or two, but right now it's one of a kind. Apple is leading the way.

There are varied opinions among the financial analysts as to whether Apple will ever return to its former glory of the 1980s (yes it was that long atime ago). The most recent evidence suggests that it has already done so, and I welcome it. The IT industry and the PC industry, in particular, needs Apple to succeed.

Copyright © 2004,

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