In mid-1983, a group of Apple Inc. executives were patting themselves on the back over a prototype of the Macintosh computer – one they thought was close to perfection.
Then they showed it to Steve Jobs.
"We're all sitting there high-fiving and we're excited about this completed product, and he says, 'What's that noise?' " recalls Jay Elliot, 70, who reported directly to Mr. Jobs for more than five years as head of the company's operations group and Macintosh division.
The fan was loud, Mr. Elliot explained, because it was working hard to keep the computer from burning up. But it was Mr. Jobs, as usual, who had the final word: "Find a way to cool it off without a fan."
It was a classic example of the management process under Mr. Jobs: firm leadership with an uncompromising approach to the final product. It took five more months before Apple's engineers presented Mr. Jobs with a satisfactory computer, and the device went on to revolutionize home computing. Other Apple devices, such as the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, would likewise change other product categories – some after similar rejections from Mr. Jobs – going on to reshape multibillion-dollar industries.
With Mr. Jobs stepping down as Apple's CEO, while remaining chairman, the technology world is asking tough questions about just how integral Mr. Jobs was to each of the company's star products – and whether, in a post-Jobs era, the company can echo the enormous strides made during his tenure.
But from the first breakthrough with the Mac, Mr. Jobs presided over a product-focused culture, and now leaves behind him a team of talented executives who have effectively been running the company, with remarkable results, since Mr. Jobs first announced a medical leave in mid-January. No one in the analyst community is panicking as chief operating officer Tim Cook takes over as CEO.
Apple is likely to change over time, partly as a result of Mr. Jobs's absence, but also because Apple is now operating in a new technology landscape – one of its own making, since its hugely popular gadgets have rewritten the old rules for the sector. Apple must now shift, analysts say, toward managing international expansion and bringing out cheaper devices, while managing its burgeoning portfolio of devices and pushing deeper into cloud computing.
"A big part of what Steve brought was the power to say no, the power to focus" on delivering products that consumers wanted, says BGC Financial analyst Colin Gillis. Still, he adds, "I've witnessed a lot of CEO transitions in my 10 years as an analyst. I'd expect this to be among the most seamless."
In his earlier days, Mr. Jobs famously berated executives, and was known to pay attention to even the most minute detail. But Mr. Elliot, who worked with him for years, said even though Mr. Jobs was an exacting boss, he wasn't the furious micromanager many people believe – noting it was possible to sway him from firmly held ideas, once convincing the Apple boss that the best place for the Mac's disk drive was not in the rear.
"Underneath it all, there's a very structured process to make it all happen," Mr. Elliot said in an interview. "He is involved more at a macro level, looking at every part of that process ... He doesn't necessarily get down into the micromanagement of it, he just puts out enough information, and an overview of his vision and what he wants to make happen. And that really gives people the focus to go and make that happen."
One of those people is Apple's celebrated senior vice-president of industrial design, Jonathan Ive, who is responsible for the iconic look and sleek design of many of the company's products.
Another is the new CEO, Mr. Cook, a tech industry veteran who is known as an operational genius and the masterful negotiator who transformed Apple's global supply chain into the engine powering the company's phenomenal profitability. Metrics under Mr. Cook turned Apple, briefly, into the most valuable corporation in the world, behind only Exxon Mobil.
This, though, is a new age for Apple. It has used the iPod and iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad to upturn three separate industries – music, mobile and computing (the latter for a second time) – in the past decade, notes Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin. There may not be that level of disruption in the future, he notes, though the company is pushing into TV – and, as BGC's Mr. Gillis points out, into international markets such as China with cheaper iPhones running off so-called "cloud" services.
But can the company continue to churn out ground-breaking products without the rigorous, emotional demands of Mr. Jobs? In one sense, Mr. Golvin says, the company doesn't really have to: Apple likely has at least two years worth of products in the pipeline, designed with Mr. Jobs' help. But at the same time, the top leadership team may no longer have Mr. Jobs's vision to guide them.
"All of these people are extremely skilled, they've proved their ability to deliver stupendous results in their particular areas, but they've always done so under the leadership of this one man and his vision," Mr. Golvin says. "And now they're going to have to try and achieve those same results without that ... It runs the risk of leading to some challenges."