Almost forty years ago, a group of young guys assembled in a California garage to build some of the first personal computers. Most of them did it for the joy of tinkering with new technology, while making a little bit of money on the side. But one saw a big commercial future for the machines on the tables before them.
His name was Steve Jobs.
Behind many an international corporation stands a visionary of some sort—and when that visionary leaves or dies, the company inevitably goes through a period of soul-searching. Jobs transformed Apple, that tiny outfit founded in a garage, into a technology powerhouse largely responsible for the current mobile-device revolution. And in the three years since his death, pundits and analysts have wondered whether Apple can maintain that momentum, forging new product categories and dominating the competition.
For the past several months, Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised that new products are indeed in the pipeline, for release sometime this year. Within the tech press, rumors of a new Apple TV, an “iWatch,” and super-sized iPhones have flown fast and furious. The fact that nothing’s yet appeared, though, has sparked anger among investors, who think Apple’s in danger of being out-innovated by competitors such as Samsung.
The latest scuttlebutt suggests that Apple has acquired Beats Electronics for $3.2 billion; if true, it’s easily the largest such deal in Apple’s history. It’s also left a lot of analysts confused. “Beats’ main asset is its brand. It’s got a great brand, and it’s a great business success. That’s how it can sell mediocre headphones and make fat margins,” Noosphere founder Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote in a recent Forbes column. “But Apple is a one-brand company. Its strength is its brand. Taking on a new, separate brand makes absolutely no sense.”
Beats also boasts a new streaming-music service without a lot of subscribers, which Apple could use to build out its own streaming efforts. The revenue from high-end headphones might ensure that the deal pays for itself within a few years. But precious few are saying that Cook’s latest move is a visionary or forward-thinking one; to the contrary, it seems nearly everyone aware of the (possible) deal is wondering what exactly is going on up in Cupertino these days, and if Cook (who established his reputation as a numbers and logistics guy, not a creative type) knows what he’s doing at the helm of such a huge firm.
If Apple doesn’t do something revolutionary soon, analyst complaints that the company is rudderless will only intensify—and whether or not it’s true, such a perception could hurt its marketing efforts, not to mention its stock price. Let that be a lesson: No matter how great your company’s products or profits, conveying a sense of direction and purpose is essential, especially in the wake of any leadership transition. That conveyance demands a visionary who can tell a great story. Who’s your Steve Jobs?
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