Reporter’s Notebook: Steve Jobs

‘His health battles made it problematic to continue as Apple’s hands-on brilliant micromanager from hell.’

by John H. Ostdick

Steve Jobs’ resignation last week as Apple CEO occurred, as most everything else, on his own terms. The man who has maintained an iron grip on how his company’s story is told exited gracefully, solemnly, with little fanfare.

One of the most calculating and controlling entrepreneurs in U.S. business history acknowledged publicly what the electronic netherworld had speculated was coming for the past few years, that his health battles had made it problematic for him to continue as Apple’s hands-on brilliant micromanager from hell, as respected business writer Joe Nocera referred to him on CNN’s Piers Morgan show Wednesday night.

Jobs was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2004 and underwent a liver transplant two years ago. He has taken two medical leaves from the company to deal with his treatments. With each public appearance in the past two years, he has appeared more gaunt.

“I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know,” Mr. Jobs, 56, said in his resignation letter. “Unfortunately, that day has come.”

While insiders indicate that Jobs in his new role as chairman will continue to have a profound influence on thinking, strategies, and product innovation in new CEO Tim Cook’s Apple, relinquishing absolute control is a major concession for the company co-founder and visionary who transformed an industry and changed the way people considered technology.

I’ve been an Apple customer most of my technological life, although I’ve never been part of the ardent mob of Apple enthusiasts who hang on every Apple-related murmur and blog utterance. Researching a June cover story for SUCCESS (while my interview requests were being rebuked, at least partially, because Jobs had cut an exclusive interview deal with Time magazine around the release of the iPad) involved certain reminiscing of the various Apple products I’d gone through during my writing and editing career—the Macintosh, Power Macintosh, Powerbook, the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod, the iPhone.

The June cover image captured the man Harvard Business School professor and author Nancy F. Koehn included in a list of great entrepreneurs of the past two centuries—“men and women such as Josiah Wedgwood, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and Estée Lauder,” she wrote in 2009. “Over and over again he has turned his eye and his energy—and at times, it has seemed, his entire being—to what might be gained by creating a new offering or taking an unorthodox strategic path.” Jobs peers out from the magazine, head slightly cocked, left eyebrow slightly raised, an impervious, empirical smirk on his whiskered face—but what tells the full story is the penetrating, somewhat beguiling gaze that looks directly from behind his wire-frame spectacles. That is the Jobs who wooed and bullied, cajoled and inspired, and created an industry from scratch and who went on to play a significant role in reshaping the music, movie, animation, and mobile-phone businesses.

“I think his brilliance has been well-documented, but what gets forgotten is the bravery with which he’s confronted his illness,” Howard Stringer, Sony Corp.’s chief executive, told The Wall Street Journal in the wake of Jobs’ announcement. “For him to achieve this much success under these circumstances doubles his legacy.”

Come what may, Jobs’ legacy is ensured, and in the short term, the 13-year Apple veteran Cook and the incredibly talented management team Jobs installed at the company will continue to work products that are already in the pipeline and the next thing. That inclination is hot-wired into the company genetics at this point. Where the company’s uncertainty arises is in what lies down the line, whether a culture so focused on its visionary can evolve its own innovative destiny.

There is no doubt, from the viewpoint of the ardent supporter or enemy list member alike, that Jobs is a giant in his time, and that he was sincere when he wrote that he believes “Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it.”

“I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple, and I thank you all for the many years of being able to work alongside you,” he wrote. It’s been a hell of a ride.

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