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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

August 24, 2011 at 7:49 PM

Jobs resigns from Apple: the end, or beginning, of an era?

Everyone knew it was coming, but it was still a shock Wednesday when Steve Jobs resigned as Apple’s chief executive.

The visionary and demanding leader leaves Apple on the highest possible note.

Over the past decade, Apple set the course for mobile computing and digital entertainment, becoming the envy of the business world and America’s second-most valuable company, behind Exxon Mobil.

Jobs’ resignation letter, disclosed by Apple, implied that his health has deteriorated to the point where he can no longer run the company he co-founded in 1976.

“I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, that day has come.”

A strikingly frail Jobs, 56, took a leave of absence in January to cope with an unspecified illness. That followed a leave in 2009 when he received a liver transplant and a 2004 leave to battle pancreatic cancer.

Apple has been criticized for not being transparent about Jobs’ health, but it had a succession plan in place.

On Wednesday, it moved quickly to name Tim Cook its chief executive. Cook, a veteran of IBM and Compaq, was Apple’s chief operating officer and had been running the company in Jobs’ absence.

Cook, 50, has been with Apple 13 years, and the company has thrived during the period when he’s been effectively in charge. But Apple’s success was attributed largely to Jobs’ near-mythical perfectionism and ability to divine technology trends.

Investors may have faith that Apple’s momentum will continue, especially with the expected release of a new version of the iPhone in early October.

Apple announced the transition after the stock market closed, and its stock fell about 5 percent in after-hours trading.

Jobs will continue to be involved as chairman of Apple’s board, but his resignation marks the end of an era for Apple and the personal-computer industry. It’s also an opportunity for the company to show the depth of its leadership and capabilities.

“I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it,” Jobs wrote in his resignation letter. “And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.”

Jobs was among a handful of idealistic and visionary computer enthusiasts in the early 1970s who turned their geeky hobby into fantastically successful companies that changed the way people work, communicate, socialize and entertain themselves.

After Bill Gates retired from Microsoft in 2008, Jobs was the last of those pioneers still leading the industry.

The two titans reminisced during their last public meeting at a conference in 2007.

“I sort of look at us as two of the luckiest guys on the planet,” Jobs said to Gates. “We found what we love to do, and we were at the right place at the right time.”

Gates recalled seeing Jobs’ “magic” ability with product decisions when they sat together reviewing Mac products in the early days.

“I’d view it as an engineering question,” Gates said. “I’d see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that is hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different. It’s magic. In that case, wow.”

Microsoft may not be quite so sentimental nowadays — with Apple’s iPad influencing consumers, retailers and computer makers — but Jobs’ departure was felt across the industry.

“It’s a sad day, obviously, for all of us,” said Tom Cullen, who worked for Jobs in the mid-1980s and later co-founded Sonos, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based audio-gear company that works with Apple.

“I think it’s got to be obvious to all of us that Steve’s been leading all of us for a good 30 years,” Cullen said. “It doesn’t matter if you sit down in front of a Windows PC or a Macintosh, you can see Steve Jobs behind the screen. Anybody who picks up a phone today can see his fingerprints on the keypad.”

Several Microsoft executives declined to comment, but co-founder Paul Allen weighed in.

“I wish Steve the best as he faces his health challenges. He is one of the greatest innovators of our industry,” Allen said, via a spokesman.

Jobs has also been the largest shareholder of Disney since 2006, when it bought Pixar Animation Studios, where he was chief executive and majority owner.

Jobs bought Pixar after he was forced out of Apple in the 1980s, and before he returned to save the computer company from near ruin in the 1990s.

That triumph was noted in a statement that Apple board member Art Levinson provided in the company’s announcement Wednesday.

“Steve’s extraordinary vision and leadership saved Apple and guided it to its position as the world’s most innovative and valuable technology company,” said Levinson, who is also chairman of Genentech.

“Steve has made countless contributions to Apple’s success, and he has attracted and inspired Apple’s immensely creative employees and world-class executive team. In his new role as chairman of the board, Steve will continue to serve Apple with his unique insights, creativity and inspiration.”

Jobs isn’t the easiest person to work with, Cullen said.

He’s “abrupt, hard-core, demanding — everybody would tell you that, but the satisfaction of knowing that you’re making the best stuff and loving to be asked what you do … that made it great.”

Cullen, who no longer holds shares in Apple, believes it will continue to thrive after Jobs because he created a “magnetic” culture that attracted talented director-level managers.

“What’s really impressive about Apple — that boggles our mind here at Sonos — is the extraordinary number of directors they have that are really good,” he said. “That’s where these companies win or lose.”

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