Who will run Apple after its visionary CEO and product guru Steve Jobs leaves? The question has been hanging over the company since last summer when Jobs appeared onstage at a conference looking terribly ill. Jobs, 53, underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer four years ago, and now says he's suffering from a "hormone imbalance." He appears determined not to groom a successor, saying last week in an open letter that he intends to remain in charge, and if at some point he can't do his job, he'll make that known, thank you very much. He grumbled that he has "given more than my all to Apple for the past 11 years," and ended by declaring, "So now I've said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this." At least he was being polite. Last summer, Jobs called a New York Times columnist a "slime bucket" for having the audacity to inquire about his health. Meanwhile, Apple's stock keeps plunging and then rebounding as Wall Street tries to figure out what's really going on.
The real issue here, and the one that Apple has failed to address in any meaningful way, is the question of succession. Who is the heir apparent? No one knows. And that's a problem. Some speculate that it might be Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer, who ran the company while Jobs was on leave to recover from his cancer surgery several years ago. Other possibilities for the post include Jonathan Ive, Apple's visionary head of design, and Phil Schiller, who runs the marketing arm.
Compare Jobs's recent recklessness to the way Microsoft managed the delicate hand-over of the company from Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer. Gates, you'll recall, was every bit as synonymous with Microsoft as Jobs is with Apple. Yet Gates managed to slide out of his company with virtually no disruption. He accomplished this by setting up the transition years in advance, giving Ballmer the CEO post and letting him get more exposure even while Gates stayed on as the figurehead and official outside representative of the company. By the time Gates did step down officially, in June 2008, his departure was practically a nonevent.
Jobs, in contrast, seems determined to hang on at Apple no matter what. See, in the world of Steve, it's all about Steve. When he does go, he will be remembered as a tremendous genius—but also as a petulant narcissist with a grandiose sense of his importance and a sadly limited view of the world around him. Ironically, it is Gates, his archnemesis, who will likely go down in history as the classy one: the one who knew how to exit gracefully, the one who is devoting the later years of his life, and all of his billions, to helping the world's poorest people—and not clinging to his CEO job while he insults reporters and plays petty cat-and-mouse games with Apple shareholders and fanboys.