Death of a Salesman: What Would Happen to Apple or Microsoft if Bill or Steve Die?

by David Czepanski Apr 24, 2006

Vista, Boot Camp, a possible Google OS, and Virtualization are the topics de jour. And from my general sense of things, it feels like Apple is going from strength to strength while Micro$oft is…. well…. not.
Of course I would say that because I’m writing for an Apple-centric site. But have a look at the comments stir that James’ article caused. It seems that people are *still* really passionate about the OS that they use and are willing to voice those passions.

We’re all wearing different coloured glasses and see things not as they are, but rather as we are. If you love M$ then things couldn’t look better for the company that will proudly bring you the *cough* soon-to-be-released Vista. Same facts, different story if you’re a Mac head.

My wife loves Macs, doesn’t tolerate PC’s and can’t understand why I enjoy playing around with Linux. She is representative of most Mac consumers and had to ask. “That’s Steve Jobs, right?” as I watched a video of him pitch his Campus idea to the Cupertino City Council.

“He’s looking old,” was her next sentence. Her comment triggered, again, something that I have been thinking about for a long time.

Go and have a look at any comments that discuss the current state of Apple and you will see Steve’s name featured pretty highly.

He’s widely seen, justifiably, to be the repeat savior of Apple, a visionary and a tyrannical genius although I think the tyrannical side is mellowing. He can sell ice to polar bears using his reality distortion field (patent pending).

If that’s really the case, what happens when there is no Steve?

From where I sit, Steve Jobs is very much tied into the direction that Apple takes—much more so than Bill Gates at Microsoft. There’s no question that Steve is the more charismatic of the two, but let’s not confuse a popularity contest with what it takes to lead a company.

It’s my impression that Bill is resting on his laurels a little and acting more as a figurehead than as a visionary leader these days.

Don’t agree? Let’s say that both Bill and Steve were talking market share together at a Starbucks when suddenly a brake failure on a Dell delivery truck brought both their lives to a sudden end. Which company would suffer the loss more? The answer isn’t Dell.

I’m not privy to this information. Is anyone outside of the Apple inner sanctum allow to be? But what would happen if Steve, for whatever reason, was no longer at Apple?

What sort of contingency plans are in place for when this happens? There must be some plans for such an event and, let’s face facts, one day Steve will hear the start up chime no longer.

No matter what the plans are, the impact will be huge when, and not if, that finally happens. There is something special about Steve Jobs and what he brings to Apple and I wonder if that’s replaceable.

Can the same be said of other companies or projects? Are other companies largely driven by one person?

Almost all of them are—at least initially.

That’s the way start up companies, start up. It’s usually one or two people doing something they love and initially they do it all because they have to. They make the coffee, they make the product and send out the invoices. They do R and D and collect the mail. They are it because there’s no one else.

An excellent leader will always build away from himself so that others know what to do when they are not there.

But we live in a time when ones employment position has to be justified on an almost daily basis and so people tend to make themselves indispensable by holding knowledge and skills to themselves.

So, does anyone else know what Steve or Bill are doing? What the plan is for the next couple of years? I trust so. They’d be idiots not to tell someone.

Of course it’s not like Apple is a start up company, nor am I so naive as to think that Steve Jobs is the only one who has all the ideas for where Apple should go.

But who else does? Who else has a clear idea of what Apple needs to do to stay on the upslope that it’s on? Can you name these people, and if so doesn’t that just make them the one(s) that are the real brains behind Apple’s direction?

Now here’s the curve ball. What other major OS player is NOT plagued by this issue?

Go to the top of the class if you answered Linux.

The Free and Open Source Software movement is not hamstrung by having a single visionary leader.

Yes, Linus Torvald kind of started it all, but Linux is much larger than him now. He recently attended the Australian Linux Users Group (held here in New Zealand?!) largely unnoticed. Well, do you know what he looks like?!

The linux code is freely available for anyone to look at and change if they know how and want to. The developers are all over the world in different time zones; they are almost all volunteers. Anyone who wants to can make a contribution.

If Linus died of a kinetic energy overdose, care of the aforementioned Dell vehicle, what would happen? It would make the news but things would carry on. The same can probably be said for any of the CEO’s of the major Linux vendors.

Linux is very broad in this respect and, one could argue, has the best chance of survival in the long term.

I’m not holding my breath for Vista - I’m pretty sure that Singularity is where Microsoft will have to go eventually.

As for Apple… this year is certainly shaping up to be an interesting one with Leopard and virtualization a few short months away.

Let’s hope that there’s a “to do” list some where at 1 Infinity Loop and more than one person knows where that list is and how to get the things on it done.


  • You guys are really out of things to write about.

    Isaac Smith had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 3
  • Sorry to be picky, but its “Infinite Loop”, not “Infinity Loop”.  Otherwise, interesting article.

    mungler had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 16
  • Spot on, Isaac. The last couple of days have been a disgrace.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 371
  • The article is nice, but the title is misleading. ” What Would Happen to Apple or Microsoft if Bill or Steve Die?” You don’t really answer this question in the article. “I don’t know” is not an answer. However, there’s nothing wrong about it. We all know what would happen. In case of Apple it would be a catastrophe, hopefully minor, but still a catastrophe. In case of Microsoft it would be Steve Ballmer. A few days ago I first saw “Developers developers” video. Oh my..! I mean OH MY…! Is he better than a catastrophe? I don’t think so!

    Frosty Grin had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 33
  • After his bout with cancer, I’m sure Steve Jobs is well aware of the succession issues and has a protégé ready. I hope that person, whoever it may be, will become more prominent soon, so that there’s an heir apparent at Apple.

    For Microsoft, it’s clear what would happen if Bill Gates were hit by a delivery truck: Ballmer would continue running the company.

    innate had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 12
  • but the title is misleading
    I’m not sure the title “What would happen if” of an article that asks what would happen if, is misleading.

    I think you’re right that the direction apple has taken in its rebirth has been overwhelmingly, and very unusually, a result of SJ’s vision. However Jobs is only indispensable if you narrowly consider there to be a definite “right” way, as if written on a scroll locked in a special box to which steve only has the key. Actually, here are many ways apple could have played it in order to become successful again. An objective look at the way apple was turned around was purely and simply by replacing bad management with good: the point i’m making is that steve’s particular management methodology isn’t, as it were, God-given. It’s just one of many possible competent methodologies.

    In a way I think we have to realise that, while we may like Jobs’s New Apple very much, we sometimes tend to allow ourselves to think that means this Apple- Steve’s Apple - is the right way for Apple to be. In actual fact, what is important from a business perspective about Steve’s Apple is that it is successful - it is well managed in such aspects as playing to its strengths, and cultivating a great brand.

    All that is really required from Apple’s leadership is good management. There is no single plan that is uniquely and specially right, there are simply good plans and bad plans.

    Basically, the question of Apple’s future is not “where must they go”, but “where can they go”. A good manager is one that takes the company in a successful direction - and there are many such directions that include but are not invalidated by Jobs’s vision.

    Benji had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 927
  • There are companies where the head honcho brings a reassuring point of focus for everyone in the company. Where by their past actions and histories created, you just trust their judgment (Warren Buffet. Steve Jobs) that they are wrong ocassionally (human after all) but they are visionaries and more right than wrong in the long term.

    Apple is not un-ironically alot alike Disney where whatever it is they are selling or doing carries with it the weight of history and expectations - whioch of course is both good & bad ... good in that they get a disproportional amount of attention (or PR) and bad when they stumble, everybody in Kansas knows.

    Apple burden is the head of state must be a visionary, understand design and ergonomic esthetics, be a marketing guru and an engineer ... really, now many people fall under that umbrella? Not just now but in the history of mankind?

    Those are nearly impossible shoes to fill, in a perfect world, you could round up like 3 guys/women to do the work but in America and perhaps anywhere, a 3-headed boss almsot never works so someone has to be put in charge and of course, there is a tendency to elevate someone who is great at something (The Diesel) but not very good at running the show.

    You can see what happens with SCulley who had the marketing and design chops but was not much of a visionary and was not respected by the engineers ...

    But Steve Jobs is already a real grownup now - building teams and moving forward Apple to more than just computers. It’s now a consumer electronics company. It’s also a content distributor. It’s a retailer. It might be a phone company and who knlws what else ... If Steve Jobs does it right, Apple will be like the Sony or HP of yore, spinning off new products in semi-autonomous manners - you just need someone who knows how to manage the divisions ...

    jbelkin had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 41
  • Apple burden is the head of state must be a visionary, understand design and ergonomic esthetics, be a marketing guru and an engineer ... really, now many people fall under that umbrella?

    No I disagree. As I see it, the fact that Apple has cast itself in the role of the great industry pioneer, this is not what it must be. It is in the very privileged position that it will be, because it has great talent, if the management acts sensibly and

    In fact I also disagree that that is a good description of Steve Jobs. I think Steve is a good manager who’s implemented sound policy. I also think he’s an uncommonly good strategist considering the general low level of foresight shown by most in the tech and media industries. But to call him a brilliant designer, or an engineer, or indeed a marketing guru (the marketing of actual macintoshes is arguably appalling) in my view comes close to the charges of people like beeblebrox of sycophancy.

    Benji had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Isaac and Beaver, I don’t see this as scratching the bottom of the barrel for ideas. I’ve been toying with a similar article myself and have seen other major news sites messing with the same idea. No one has really come up with an answer. It’s a good question for David to raise, and is thought provoking and stimulates discussion, which is one of the main aims of writers here.

    You should think about life without Steve, because you are investing your time, effort, learning and income in a niche computer maker. Are you confident that Apple will go on from strength to strength in Steve’s absence?

    It’s easy when things are looking good to not want to consider contingenies. But that’s a recipie for disaster. You can’t imagine Apple not planning for life after Steve, and it is quite valid and reasonable for those who commentate on Apple, to raise the issue - especially when things are going well. And I liked that David compared the same happening at MS with Bill.

    Personally, I worry about life without Steve. Apple struggled the first time without him and they were in a much, much better in the computer market than now. He’s a hard man to replace.

    It is one of the reasons I hesitate some times to recommend Macs to people. Am I recommending a system that is dependent on one man’s existence?

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 24, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • ...Did someone kill-off Beeblebrox?

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Apr 25, 2006 Posts: 299
  • Seems like eWeek took your story, spun it and ran with it; with a 3 page long story and a link from Slashdot!

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Apr 27, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Well done, David! Seems the idea was worth writing about smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 29, 2006 Posts: 1209
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