We can take all the precautions we like, but eventually every system can undergo a shift that shakes it to the core. We see it with the weather when a rare alignment of meteorological events tears a calm environment to shreds. We see it in business when a dominant company or brand in a particular market is suddenly toppled. Mathematicians and scientists variously explain these phenomena in “chaos theory,” “catastrophe theory” and “tipping point theory.” Today, one major corporation that may have just reached a tipping point is Apple Inc.
Somewhat ironically, Apple’s fortunes had already started changing course just as its stock hit meteoric levels in 2011. Then Steve Jobs died. The death of a brilliant business leader is a blow for any company, but it’s a potential disaster for Apple for three reasons. First, Apple doesn’t just have customers like any other corporation; it has disciples, or more accurately, Jobs had disciples. He exercised a near-messianic influence over these followers by creating a quasi-mystical aura around Apple’s products, which some regard almost as sacred amulets and Jobs their divine creator. That was no mean feat for a mere mortal and it was mainly where his brilliance lay. He wasn’t a trained product designer, software engineer, or mathematician, but he was exceptionally clever, had an inspired imagination, enormous ambition and a sharply focused sense of purpose driven by a sizeable ego. In short, he was a genius.
Corporate bosses rarely attain the high profile that Jobs enjoyed. Indeed, most shun the limelight, which is just as well since few have anything remotely like his natural charisma. That brings up the second reason his death is so significant for Apple: He was more than a charismatic business leader; to many people, he was the company. That was a huge asset for Apple while he was alive, but with his death, it’s the reason the corporation is perilously close to a tipping point.
The third reason his death is so significant for the company is that Jobs is not just a hard act to follow; he’s an impossible act to follow. The new boss is probably a good CEO, but he’s not a guru and, for the next few years, he’s likely to be referred to as “the other guy, what’s his name again?” At best, Tim Cook (that’s his name) will be just another CEO of a large corporation well known in business, media and investment circles, but a grey man to the millions of iPhone and iPad users. He will have a mammoth task trying to motivate company employees used to the inspiring energy of Jobs, and he can never hope to receive anything like the veneration that Jobs elicited from customers. It won’t be easy being the grey man dogged by such a legacy; yet, it’s likely to be the least of Tim Cook’s problems.
Threatening clouds were forming on Apple’s horizon long before Jobs died. Its products began displaying less than mystical traits. Whether the problems were with antennae, batteries, front glass panels or the iCloud service, it seemed that Apple was rushing models and services to market a little too soon because it feared the faithful might, well, lose faith. Apart from technical issues, Apple began experiencing serious competitive pressure for the first time in years. During 2011, Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone outsold the iPhone, and the other “iGadgets” like the iPad witnessed several significant rivals gathering on the horizon. Not least was Amazon with the Kindle Fire tablet, which went on sale for half the price of an iPad. Worse was to come: the technical press accorded very positive reviews to Microsoft’s new smartphone operating system, Windows Phone. The New York Times columnist Nick Bilton, writing about the Nokia Lumia 900, which uses the Microsoft operation system, enthused “…I just publicly lusted after a non-Apple smartphone. A phone that runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system, no less.”
Catastrophe theory holds that too many unpredictable factors govern the world for humans to reliably predict or control them, so tipping points are inevitable. When one is reached, enormous change takes place. Usually, that change happens very rapidly and is virtually impossible to control. The disruption lasts until a new state of equilibrium rises from what’s left of the old system, and the relentless march towards the next tipping point starts again. Apple will likely reach its tipping point in 2012. The company will still exist after the dust settles, but it will be a very different operation. It will be a tech company, no more profitable or innovative that half a dozen others. It won’t be leader of the pack and its stock price will reflect that fact.