The Beginning of the End for Jobs

Steve JobsI finally got around to watching the stream of Wednesday’s iPad announcement at about 11:30 local time last night. Of course, I couldn’t wait until the bitter end to go to bed, and falling asleep was a bit challenging even at that late hour. After a short but good night’s rest, I awoke with a thought that had absolutely nothing to do with the iPad, and everything to do with the iPad all at the same time.

I have a strange sense that we were watching what is perhaps the penultimate performance by the master of the keynote. Please understand, this is entirely an intuitive sense that something wasn’t quite business as usual. I have no knowledge of any such information, nor am I making a prediction. I’m just offering my take on what I saw. And I saw several telltale signs that Steve Jobs may be on his way to relinquishing his CEO role at Apple. Here are my thoughts.

  1. Jobs went out of his way to point out that Apple is a $50 billion company.
  2. There were a couple of historical references, including the great black-and-white photo of Jobs and Woz and the first PowerBook.
  3. Though they weren’t necessarily presented in this manner, that sounds a lot like personal legacy to me. Reading between the lines, the unspoken message is “I’ve turned this garage band into one of the most powerful companies in the world today.”
  4. With one quick comment and supporting slide, Jobs made a major strategic shift and repositioned Apple as a mobile products company, which has a much more exciting future than computers.
  5. He also made a clear effort to convince the media in attendance that they could sell this device. The subtle message is that if they can get traction on the iPad while growing or maintaining the other three product lines, they can succeed well into the future without him.
  6. Schiller and Forstall played pretty significant roles in the iPad announcement and Jobs is nowhere to be found in the announcement video. Neither of these unprecedented, but noteworthy nonetheless.

My gut tells me that the earnings and iPad announcements this week was the first real indication that the public reveal of Apple succession is underway. I expect Jobs to become non-executive chairman, maintaining a public profile and involvement as inspirational leader and assurance for investors. Cook will take over as CEO and Oppenheimer remaining CFO. Cook will remain the behind-the-scenes operational genius, with Schiller, Forstall, and to a lesser extent Madsen being the public personae for products. Schiller is the Mac guy (yesterday, his role was relegated to iWork, which is a port of a desktop suite of apps). Forstall is the iP guy (iPhone, iPod, iPad). If the future of the company is truly as a mobile products company, that suggests Forstall will have an increasingly visible role with the company, with Schiller taking a back seat. Indeed, Forstall seems more at ease leading a major presentation, save for his inability to hide the remote while clicking to change slides or averting his eyes to the confidence monitor. The wild card is designer Jonathan Ive, but my guess he is very passionate about the design side of the company and doesn’t want the hassles of the business.

Apple doesn’t need a breakthrough device for some time. If it continues to execute well on its current product lineup–something Cook excels at–they should be in great shape. Right now or soon after the iPad ships might very well be the perfect time for Jobs to announce his successor.