Steve Jobs is missed, but Apple's stronger now than a year ago, analysts say

A year after company co-founder's death, has Apple changed? Yes and no

A year after Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' death, the company has changed, analysts said today.

Oh, no it hasn't, said others.

There's no question that in the 12 months since Jobs' death on Oct. 5, 2011, Apple has remained a powerhouse -- some would hazard the powerhouse -- in technology.

Yesterday, Apple's share price closed at $666.80, 79% above its price one year ago today. Revenue for the second quarter -- the most recent earnings reported by Apple -- was $35 billion, up 23% from the same quarter in 2011. And in the quarter ending June 30, 2012, Apple sold a record 17 million iPads, the tablet that Jobs himself introduced in January 2010.

That was the last new product Jobs pulled out of his virtual top hat as CEO.

"Apple is different now. It's been forced to grow up as a company," said Dany Gaspar, director of digital strategy at Levick, a Washington, D.C. communications firm. "They now own the title of the world's most valuable company, but to do that they needed to grow up organizationally."

As proof of Apple's maturation, Gaspar cited current CEO Tim Cook's decision to issue dividends to stockholders, a move that Jobs had always resisted.

Cook announced the plan in March, along with a stock repurchasing program -- something else Jobs had opposed -- less than seven months after he took the reins, saying the two programs would collectively lay out $45 billion over a three-year period.

But not every expert is certain Apple -- which posted a video on its home page today honoring Jobs a year after his death -- has changed.

"The thing I struggle with the most in answering that question is, I just don't know," said Carolina Milanesi, a research analyst and vice president with Gartner who covers Apple. "It's different, but whether that comes from the fact that Jobs is not there, or a combination of Jobs' [absence] and the world being a different world today, I don't know."

She used the recent misstep by Apple over its decision to replace Google Maps with its own technology in iOS 6 as an example.

"No one can argue that Jobs got away with things Cook cannot," said Milanesi, referring to the difference between the apologies each penned after public relations disasters. "If you have this god-like persona, people just accept you, whatever you do. But Cook's apology was perfect. He said Apple is about quality and precision, he said they got it wrong. He understood that it's more important saying that than being defensive."

Two apologies five years apart -- both smart moves, public relations experts have said -- illustrate the consistency of Apple after Jobs' death. But the execution of those apologies shows a different Apple today.

Consistency is what analysts saw after reflecting on the last 12 months. They attributed that to Apple's long product development cycles and -- because of those timelines -- see evidence that the Cupertino company is still implementing ideas Jobs conceived or approved.

Apple acknowledged Steve Jobs' passing last year with his picture on the Apple.com website.

"Take the MacBook Pro with the Retina screen," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, talking about the revamped laptop sporting a high-resolution screen that Apple rolled out in June. "Everything about it is Jobs. The price is shockingly high, but at the same time it's aggressive. That's a Jobs trick.

"And the iPad Mini, I think Jobs always had that in mind, no matter what smoke he blew," Gottheil said of the intensely-rumored smaller tablet most expect to launch in less than two weeks and go on sale in four.

Even the move to swap out Google Maps has Jobs' fingerprints all over it. "Jobs was known as someone who had come to hate Google and Android," said Gaspar.

"If you're looking at Maps, the execution of it might have been different with Jobs, but the idea of owning that, of taking that in-house because maps are crucial to mobility, that was Jobs," said Milanesi.

Last year, analysts and other pundits predicted that Apple would do just fine, thank you, without Jobs: His ideas and plans had surely packed the pipeline, enough for years.

That thought still holds.

"Think of a five- to 10-year timeline," advised Gottheil.

"They should be fine in the immediate future," said Gaspar. "But at some point, we'll find out how effective Cook is creatively. He's thrived at implementing [Jobs' ideas], but how is he at innovation, creativity?"

Gaspar argued, in fact, that 12 months is too soon to expound on where Apple is sans Jobs. "The bigger question is, 'Where is Apple next year?' Twelve months is not enough time to really judge what a CEO has done when the previous CEO had had everything laid out. Next year, I think, will be much more telling."

Cook, in other words, is still working in Jobs' shadow.

But by all the evidence, Apple continues to shine, even in that shadow, the analysts agreed.

"Apple is stronger now than 12 months ago," said Gottheil. "It's not in any way a flawed or doomed enterprise without Jobs. It's still an amazing business, even though the genius is gone."

Gaspar, too, sees a stronger Apple. "They have more competition now, and that competition is moving at a rapid pace, and yet they have been able to keep hold of their markets," he said.

But strong or not, on track or not, without its mercurial leader, Apple just feels different to long-time company observers.

Gottheil said Jobs' absence is most obvious when Apple trots out its executives for a major product refresh or launch. The setting may be the same, the structure of the presentation similar if not identical to what Jobs defined, but there's something missing.

"It was expected, of course, but without him, their presentations lack punch," said Gottheil. "Somehow they aren't able to blow enough smoke, shine enough mirrors without Jobs."

Milanesi took up the thread when she talked about The Next Big Thing -- always capitalized when used with Jobs -- the idea that Apple would always have something amazing waiting in the wings. "Innovation is great, but maybe now that doesn't come every year, it comes every 5 years or every 10 years," she said.

"You don't get people like Jobs very often," said Gottheil. "He was in there at the beginning, like an artist is at the beginning of an art form. But when you're at the beginning, when you're defining that art form, you get to lay down the tracks that everyone else has to travel."

That was Jobs could do, Gottheil said. And that, more than anything else, is what is different about Apple without him.

Editors and writers from Computerworld, Network World, CIO.com and ITworld shared their thoughts last year on Steve Jobs passing, his impact on technology and his legacy.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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