Steve Jobs the businessman: Can Apple thrive without him?

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Jason Reed / Reuters

As Apple fans mourn the unfortunate loss of Steve Jobs, the great innovator will be remembered most of all for how his ideas changed people’s lives. But in the world of business, he will also be honored as an absolutely brilliant CEO. Jobs possessed the rare ability to link emerging technologies with consumer habits and tastes in a way that built a powerful corporation and an internationally beloved brand. There aren’t that many people in modern corporate history who can claim that skill. In fact, Jobs was probably unrivaled in the world today in matching great ideas with savvy marketing and pristine execution. And that’s why there is reason for uncertainty about Apple’s future.

The question is: Can Apple keep the Steve Jobs spirit without Steve Jobs?

There is a long history, of course, of entrepreneurial companies not only surviving their charismatic founders, but thriving after they passed on. Ford did just fine after the death of Henry; Disney is still a force in entertainment long after Walt. Apple will remain a major player in the world of computing and electronics without Steve. The firm is simply too established, too much a part of a consumer’s life, to just wither away, even with the exit of a towering figure like Jobs.

But the question remains if Apple can continue to be an industry leader as it has routinely been under Jobs. Can Apple keep its edge? Apple’s success has always been based on being first, by solving problems others thought unsolvable, and introducing products that changed how people worked, played and communicated. It is not easy for any company to continue to produce innovative hit after innovative hit, even with its visionary leader still in the corner office. It will be even harder for Apple with Jobs gone. That isn’t to say that current CEO Tim Cook can’t get the job done. But Jobs is just a very hard act to follow.

The future facing Apple makes me think of another electronics giant, Japan’s Sony. Sony was Apple before Apple, the great global innovator that produced products that changed people’s lives, again and again. Sony, remember, championed the idea of personalized electronics – not the giant radio in the living room, but the miniature transistor radio, or the portable TV set. Sony invented the Walkman, altering forever how people listened to music, in the same way the iPod has in more recent times. Sony, like Apple, was a company that thrived on new ideas, new technologies, and an engaging brand.

And just like Apple, Sony was propelled forward by personality – well, two personalities, in fact – co-founders Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka. The two of them were behind everything Sony did, much like Jobs at Apple. They were unique visionaries, with a unique talent of bringing technology to the masses. And in the process, much like Jobs, they built an international company with an unrivaled brand.

Sony is still one of the industry’s titans today, long after Morita and Ibuka have left the scene. The Japanese firm continues to make high-quality consumer electronics under one of the most trusted brands in the world. But no one would say Sony is the influential innovator it used to be. Apple took its place as the game changer of the electronics world. Up-and-coming companies like Samsung have eaten away at its global presence in key businesses, like televisions. Sure, the company has been managed by some talented people, but Morita and Ibuka were just too hard to replace. Sony has never been quite the same without them.

Will Apple suffer the same fate? It is impossible to tell. Yet Sony offers a cautionary tale. I was in Tokyo conducting some research on Sony a few years ago and had the pleasure of interviewing Yotaro Kobayashi, a long-time friend of Akio Morita. He believed that Sony struggled because its modern-day managers kept trying to recapture the old Morita-Ibuka spirit to guide the company to its future. But, Kobayashi believed, that was not possible. There was only one Morita and one Ibuka.

Just like there is only one Steve Jobs.

Kobayashi’s point was that Sony had to grow beyond its dynamic founders and find a new future in order to maintain its greatness. Sony had to stop looking backwards to an age it couldn’t recreate and instead look forwards. That may be sound advice for Apple today.