How Will Apple Do Without “What Would Steve Do”?

A few days ago, I wrote about the possibilities for Steve Jobs’ final “One more thing…” It seems pretty clear at this point that when he passed away earlier this month, he was still hard at work on a few new products for Apple. One was probably the next iPhone (meaning the one after the just-released iPhone 4S). Two other possibilities include digital textbooks and most notably, an Apple television set. All of this got me thinking.

Under Tim Cook and the rest of an extremely experienced and capable executive team, Apple is clearly in good hands going forward. Yes, Apple fell a bit short of Wall Street expectations last quarter, but they still destroyed their own, and next quarter promises to be a blowout. Further, all the talk of Apple’s internal university to instill the “Apple way” in employees even without Jobs is good news as well. But the truth is that Apple will not likely face their first true post-Jobs test until they release their first truly new product. That execution will shed light on Apple’s future.

In the next few months, Apple is probably going to unveil a new iPad. It will probably have a high resolution screen and a few other great new features. But the iPad is now already an established category for the company. Apple will sell millions of a new version regardless of how they handle the roll out. The same is true with the next iPhone. Unless they truly screw up the product in some way that’s very unlikely to happen (again, see: killer executive team), it’s going to be a huge hit. New Macs, same story.

But what happens when Apple sets out to unveil the Apple television? To be clear, while there is too much smoke for there to be no fire, Apple always has plenty of products in development that ultimately never see the light of day — an Apple television set is still far from a certainty. But Jobs himself saying “I finally cracked it” in his biography sure seems to signal there’s a pretty good chance it will come out eventually. It could be a year from now, it could be five years from now.

But for the sake of this argument, let’s say the Apple television is Apple’s next new product. And let’s say the plan is to release it in the next year to two years. It’s going to be vital that Apple nails it.

The seemingly obvious game plan would be simply to emulate everything from Jobs-era Apple. But perhaps that’s not the right way to think about it. It certainly seems like Jobs wasn’t thinking about it that way.

During Apple’s memorial service for Jobs, Cook said the following about Jobs to the audience:

Among his last advice he had for me, and for all of you, was to never ask what he would do. “Just do what’s right.”

Cook went on to note that Jobs expressed hope that these instructions would help Apple avoid the trap that Disney fell into after Walt Disney’s death.

Jobs also told his biographer Walter Isaacson that Cook wasn’t “a product person, per se” and so that would also make emulating Jobs-era Apple difficult since Jobs was a product person with the final say. Apple’s product teams are undoubtedly working towards Tim Cook reviews instead of Steve Jobs reviews now, but it’s probably much more of a team effort than it has been in the past.

Obviously, getting the product right before it’s unveiled is the most important factor, but don’t underestimate the unveiling itself. Everyone knows that Jobs was a master showman on stage and Apple’s other executives, while good in their own right, will not be able to replace that. But there’s something more subtle that Apple will be missing without Jobs around to unveil something like the Apple television:  trust.

When Jobs took the stage at Apple events to show off a new product, it was exciting not only because he was a charismatic and good presenter, but also because over time, people learned to trust Jobs. That is to say, they learned to trust that if he was on stage showing off something, you know damn well that he thought it was awesome. There were a few exceptions — namely MobileMe, but that mess up was mainly in execution post-unveiling — but the vast majority of the time, when Jobs would show off a new product, it would turn out to be great.

Apple will be missing that factor for their next big new product unveiling. Some people may transfer the trust over to Apple itself (if Apple is releasing this, you know it must be good), but many will still be skeptical initially knowing that Jobs himself did not sign off on the final product.

That’s why the next new product is crucial for Apple. Fair or not, without Jobs, the company will have to re-establish consumer trust that Jobs’ presence brought. Just doing “what’s right” is obviously easier said than done. But Jobs probably felt comfortable giving that advice to Cook knowing that Apple University would help set that gauge.

To keep the dream alive, Apple now must focus on one thing — and it happens to be Tim Cook’s specialty: execution. Jobs set a few final products on the tee, the rest of the team has to swing. If the Apple television is a homerun, they’ll be golden.