I just spent an hour waiting in a line at an Apple store to buy a product I do not need. It's the new top-of-the-line iPhone 3GS, and it costs $299, and I waited in line for it even though I already have last year's iPhone 3G model, not to mention a NEWSWEEK-issued BlackBerry, a low-end Nokia "feature phone," and a new Palm Pre, albeit a loaner unit. Why did I do this? Well, the new iPhone has a faster processor than its predecessor, and a better camera, and it shoots video. It also has more memory, so I can carry around more songs or movies. But really, I did it because I trust that whatever Apple puts out will be worth the money. I did it because I always want to have the latest and greatest from Apple. You see, Apple and its loyal customers (like me) have made a deal: it'll keep improving its products at a fantastic pace, and killing off its own products. In return, we'll keep buying whatever it makes.
In the midst of all this, some people are wondering whether Apple might be better off if Steve Jobs did not return to work from his sick leave. Jobs, Apple's visionary CEO, has been on medical leave for six months and has received a liver transplant. He's now starting to come back to work, but there are some folks who seem to wish he'd just stay away. That was kind of the gist of the story in this morning's Wall Street Journal, which praised Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook for doing such a bang-up job while the Dear Leader was away. One Wall Street analyst said the loss of Cook would be more upsetting to him than the loss of Jobs. During his absence Apple's stock has soared 60 percent, and the company sold 1 million units of the iPhone 3GS during the product's debut weekend.
So who needs Steve Jobs? Especially since he's known for being, well, difficult. He's created a weird corporate culture of secrecy about his health and everything else at Apple, as The New York Times pointed out this morning.
Times columnist Joe Nocera goes further and says that if Jobs and his directors won't come clean about his health problems, they're guilty of "dereliction of duty" and should be forced to resign.
OK. Deep breath. Let's admit that Jobs is a royal pain in the neck. Most of us probably wouldn't want to work for him, or live next door to him, or have to negotiate deals with him. He's spoiled, and arrogant, and he has a terrible temper. But he's also brilliant. Those lines at the Apple store today? Tim Cook didn't create those. Neither did Phil Schiller, Apple's marketing chief, or Ron Johnson, the retail boss who runs the stores, or even Jon Ive, Apple's design guru. No, Steve Jobs is the one who gets those people to line up. He's the one with the vision. He's the one who inspires the fanboys.
Cook is a great manager, a whiz when it comes to managing supply chains and keeping the trains running on time. He is vital to Apple. Jobs cannot do what he does. But neither can Cook do what Jobs does. The fact is, Apple needs both of them. Forgive me for the analogy I am about to make—but if you've seen the latest Star Trek movie, then you might understand how Cook and Jobs work together. Cook is Spock: low-key, cerebral, methodical. He's the Apollonian counterpart to Kirk, the Dionysian hothead. Kirk is impulsive—but nobody would deny that he, not Spock, should be captain of the ship.
So it is with Steve Jobs and Apple, only more so. Apple is Steve; Steve is Apple. No CEO is as important to his company as Jobs is to Apple. I would go farther and argue that not only does Apple need Steve Jobs—the world needs him. In an age when the pace of technology innovation keeps accelerating so much that we often feel overwhelmed, we need someone who can package new technology, make it accessible to us, and deliver it to us in a way that makes it simple, useful, and reliable. How many things in your life work as well as your Macintosh, or your iPod, or your iPhone? (Allowing for the fact that AT&T's cell network stinks.)
So, yes, today I waited an hour in line for my new phone. As soon as I got it, right there in the store I typed in my account information for MobileMe, Apple's online service, and watched as all of my e-mail, contacts, calendar information, and bookmarks zipped through the air and filled up my phone. Like magic. In seconds. Without a hiccup.
Then I went back to my office and tried to write this article on a PC on which I'm running the beta version of Windows 7, the brand-new version of Microsoft's operating system. I'd written a paragraph when the PC crashed, for no reason. I started up again, rewrote the paragraph, and then the PC froze—again for no reason. At that point I gave up and just wrote the story on my Apple MacBook Pro, a pricey but rock-solid little notebook that runs on an operating system I can't remember ever crashing. I have no idea what makes one operating system work better than another, except that I know you need to have someone in charge who keeps telling the engineers that it's not good enough—go back and do better. And that, my friends, is why Apple, and all of us, need Steve Jobs.