With Steve Jobs Gone, How Will Apple’s Software Fare Vs. Windows 8 & Android?

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Now that Steve Jobs is gone, will Apple be able to stick to the same high levels of innovation that have sparked groundbreaking products like the iPad, iOS, iTunes and Mac OS X over the past three decades? For this to happen, Jobs’ carefully put together management team needs to stay as open to new ideas — and new talent — as Jobs did throughout his lifetime, and maybe the same willingness to take chances against rivals.

hen you think of Apple as a company, it’s likely that hardware devices such as Phones, Macs, and the one-button mouse are some of the first things that come to mind. As most people know, Apple was also the first to popularize easy-to-use, point-and-click graphical PC user interfaces (GUIs). With Jobs at the helm, though, Apple has also pioneered all along in operating systems (OS) and other underlying software technologies that help its notebook, desktop, and mobile products to work.

Now, with new and still not completely defined competition coming down the road from rivals ranging from Microsoft’s Windows 8 to Android 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”), Apple can’t really afford to rest on its earlier software laurels.

In moving Apple forward, those left behind will be building on traditions already set down  — whether intentionally or not — by Jobs as their shared mentor of sorts. At the same time, they’ll be encountering new and unpredictable competitive challenges. How might they handle this tough balancing act, both individually and collectively?

Triumphs and duds

In spite of all of Apple’s stellar successes over the past three decades, Jobs’ openness to taking risks contributed to some colossal flops on both the hardware and software fronts. After each misstep, though, Jobs strode on with his well known determination, often taking the best components — sofrware, hardware, or otherwise — from a failed project to build a better product.

To give one example, iCloud — first announced along with iOS 5 at the Apple Developers Conference in June — is a replacement for Apple’s earlier MobileMe, an ill-fated effort plagued with sync up problems and lost e-mails.

Further back to Apple’s beginnings, the Lisa, successor to the Apple II, never took off. For Apple’s next computer, the original Mac, Jobs “borrowed and stole liberally from Lisa, in terms of ideas, assets and people,” recalled Trip Hawkins, one of the first 25 Apple employees, and later the founder of Electronic Arts (EA) gaming company, in a blog post this week.

“In fact, Mac would not have had printer fonts or any form of printer for another two years were it not for Lisa,” Hawkins elaborated.

‘My model for business is The Beatles’

Yet as Jobs himself did admit, the credit for Apple’s successes didn’t belong to him alone. Nor did the blame for Apple’s mistakes. In discussions of Apple’s future fate, much has been made of the contrast in styles between the charismatic (if sometimes abrasive) product innovator and his replacement, the mild-mannered and diligent Tim Cook, who rose to COO and then CEO at Apple after streamlining the company’s supply chain by shutting down manufacturing plants.

There’s also been tons of talk around Jobs’ close creative relationship with Jonathan (“Jony”) Ive, Apple’s brilliant design chief, who led development of both the iPhone and the iPad.

Jobs, though, often espoused teamwork among groups of employees, even back in the early days. “Great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people,” Jobs noted in a TV interview on 60 Minutes a number of years back.

“My model for business is the Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts,” he illustrated.

‘Apple’s brightest and most innovative days…’

Although not all of them have drawn as much recent attention as Cook or Ive, Apple’s management team is made up of at least 15 key players, including several on the software side: Dr. Guy (Bud) Tribble, VP of software technology; Scott Forstall, senior VP in charge of iOS software; Craig Federighi, recently promoted to senior VP, software engineering; and Eddy Cue, who now steps up to the job of head of Internet software and services.

In resigning as Apple’s CEO on August 24 of this year, just some six weeks before his untimely death at the age of 56 from pancreatic cancer, Jobs wrote to Apple employees that, “I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it.”

Jobs’ confidence could be warranted in the sense in that all members of the current team have carried out key parts in earlier Apple innovations.

Just days after Jobs passed away, a UK tabloid known as the Daily Mail ran an article contending that Jobs left behind a four-year secret plan for the Apple team to follow, containing “blueprints” for new releases of the iPhone, iPad, iPod, and MacBook.

The newspaper didn’t name any sources, and it’s unclear whether any such formal plan actually exists. Certainly, though, the various members of Apple’s teams have all interacted with Jobs enough over the years to have gained insights into his long-term product visions.

The British tabloid didn’t point to any forthcoming breakthroughs in Apple’s software. Meanwhile, though, the changes have been manifold, if not completely earth-shattering, in the latest rounds of updates to iOS, the OS used in the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, and OS X, Apple’s OS for desktop and notebook Macs.

OS X grows more ‘iOS-like’

iOS 5 and OS X Lion are both tooled to work well with iCloud, an ambitious new undertaking by Apple to store photos, music, apps, docs and other matter and wirelessly push content to devices.

ioS 5 also adds more than 200 other new features, including Twitter integration; a new iMessage service for quick messaging among iOS devices; a revamped Games Center; new Reminder and NewsStand apps; and AirPlay Mirroring, for mirroring content displayed on the iPad 2 to HDTVs through Apple TV.

Mac OS X Lion, on the other hand, gains new features such as a MAC App Store; multitouch gestures; versioning, for automatically saving various versions of docs while you work; and AirDrop, for sharing files with other PCs.

Also new are bells-and-whistles aimed at making OS X more “iOS-like,” including spelling autocorrect; natural scrolling, application restore; and launchpad, a feature that makes all of your apps seem to fly to the screen through a simple “pinch” gesture.

Today’s Apple team stretches way back

All of Apple’s top software execs go back with Apple for many years, but Tribble — who led development of both the original Mac OS and its GUI — stretches back the farthest.

Jobs left Apple in 1986 after feuding with then-CEO John Sculley. He went on to found NeXT Computer with the help of Tribble, not returning until ten years later, when Apple bought NeXT. Tribble headed up NeXT’s software development.

Tribble has also served stints at Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and elsewhere, and he’s earned a medical degree. Now back at Apple since 2002, Tribble is regarded as Apple’s unofficial CEO,

Forstall and Federeghi are also alumni of NeXT, a company that created the NeXTStation, another early computer with a graphical interface.

NeXTStation ran an advanced, object-oriented OS called NeXTStep, a desktop system enabled for multitasking long before its time.

“NeXTStep already had a fully featured operating system and could play videos, record sound and embed objects. In comparison, Windows hadn’t even reached version 3 by the time of NeXTStep’s debut,” according to Alan Blewitt, editor of the InfoQ blog, who owned a NeXTStation during the early 1990s.

Developers wrote the first version of HTTP on a NeXTStation. The computer never caught on commercially, however, due to its costliness. Jobs then transitioned NeXT into a software company.

Forstall also followed Jobs from NeXT to Apple, where he led development on several releases of OS X, an OS incorporating object-oriented development technologies first created for NexTStep. After spearheading the success of the OS X Leopard release, Forstall took over development of iOS.

The new iOS 5, which is built right into Apple’s new iPhone 4GS, also includes several new capabilities apparently inspired by the rival Android OS but absent from Apple’s mobile OS until now, such as PC-free operations, notifications, and wireless syncing.

Federighi doesn’t turn up in the limelight nearly as often as Forstall. Yet he is another former NeXT employee who followed Jobs to Apple. After leaving Apple in 1999, Federighi came back a decade later to focus solely on OS X. Federighi’s role with OS X was expanded earlier this year when Bertrand Serlet, another long-time Apple engineer, departed the company in March. Serlet, known internally as the “Jony Ive of software,” was one of many Apple employees who hailed originally from Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).

Other key members of Apple’s current management team include Phil Schiller, senior VP of worldwide product marketing; Bob Mansfield, senior VP of Mac hardware engineering; Peter Oppenheimer, senior VP, CFO; Bruce Sewell, senior VP, general counsel; Jeff Williams, senior VP, operations; and Katie Cotton, VP, worldwide corporate communications. Apple hasn’t yet named a replacement for Cook as COO.

Enter Windows 8 and Ice Cream Sandwich

Federighi’s appointment as senior VP of software engineering came at an important time for Apple, because with the new Lion release, Apple is moving OS X’s architecture closer to that of iOS.

Some users are now carping about the new iOS-inspired features in OS X Lion, contending that while these might make sense on mobile devices, they’re only interferences on Macs and MacBooks.

Some have speculated that OS X might ultimately go away entirely, meaning that Apple will be using iOS across PCs along with its iPad tablets and iPhone. Interestingly, Microsoft is taking a similar but more limited approach with Windows 8, an emerging OS designed to work across both PCs and ARM-based tablets. Although Windows 8 won’t run on phones, it will use the same tile-based GUI as Windows Phone 7.

Windows 8 recently entered developers pre-release mode, and Microsoft plans to add many more features — still unknown — to the new OS before it ultimately reaches final release.

Will Apple escalate its current “‘iOS-ization” of OS X, or back off from that path? Will the company eventually emulate some of the types of features that appear in Windows 8?

Meanwhile, full details haven’t been announced yet about Ice Cream Sandwich, a forthcoming major update to the Android OS which will be optimized for both tablets and phones (but not for PCs). When Ice Cream Sandwich sees the light of day, will Apple imitate some of its capabilities in iOS? Alternatively, will Apple take iOS in a different kind of direction? Time will tell.

Tackling rivals in the clouds

Over in Internet software and services, Cue will also play a pivotal role going forward at Apple. Cue was promoted to senior VP there in September after helping to create the Apple online store in 1998, the iTunes Music Store in 2003, and the App Store in 2008.

In his new, very high profile position, Cue is in charge of all of those entities, along with Apple’s new iCloud, the iBookstore and iAds. Apple badly needs a success with iCloud, so as to fend off competitors like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon in the burgeoning cloud services business.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 is set to include “People” and “Photos” apps for Windows Live, a Microsoft platform combining application software and cloud services.

Mobile phones and tablets running the Google-driven Android OS are already laden with tie-ins to Google cloud services like the Android Market, Google Voice and Google Maps.

With its just announced, Andoid OS-based Kindle Fire e-reader tablet, Amazon will take on Apple and other tablet rivals by exploiting ts robust EC2 cloud services to give the Fire super fast browsing through a new browser named “Silk”, plus automatic, user-unattended cloud storage and synchronization.

Cue arrives at his new job at Apple well-groomed for the competitive onslaught. He also took over the reins of iCloud’s precursor, MobileMe, in 2008, after MobileMe’s glitch-filled launch in 2008.

iCloud still could be a tall order, though, because unlike some of its competitors, Apple doesn’t exactly come to cloud computing with a long history as a big-time Internet services provider.

MobileMe’s launch was not “up to Apple’s standards” and wasn’t “our best hour,” Jobs told Apple employees in an e-mail three years ago, explaining that Apple should have rolled out the service more gradually. Heads rolled at the time.

“[But] we are taking steps to learn from this experience so we can grow MobileMe into a service that our customers will love,” Jobs added.

Steve Jobs’ dual legacy

In future product planning, it wouldn’t make sense for the team left behind to veer too far away from products that customers already do know and love.

Yet regardless of whether or not he left behind a four-year plan for the Apple team to follow, Jobs also established a company culture around taking some chances, learning from mistakes, and staying open to new ideas and new talent. Both sides of this legacy could serve the Apple veterans well in times ahead.

In the computer industry, a lot of change can happen in just a few short months, let alone four years. After all, Apple didn’t even ship its first iPhone until 2007, right? Now it’s 2011, and that was only four years ago.

 

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