Steve Jobs's greatest service to Apple during his second stint as the company's CEO might just be ensuring that the company can survive and prosper without Steve Jobs.
Apple was once a cult brand, and just like a religious cult, it relied on its charismatic leader to channel its followers' devotion. When Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985, the company foundered. One reason was that Apple produced an array of different Macintosh models, each one hardly distinguishable from the next. This confused consumers, particularly new consumers: If choosing a Mac was just as difficult as choosing a PC, why bother? When Jobs returned, he streamlined the product line at the same time that he streamlined the products' design. All you needed to decide when buying the sleek, compact iMac was what color you wanted, and how much memory you needed.
But Jobs's great innovation was the iPod, and not merely because it revolutionized the music industry, or because it is still, after more than a decade, without rival. With the iPod, Jobs solved the dilemma that every cult brand faces: how to expand its customer base without alienating the devoted followers who helped build it. The iPod allowed users to experience the Apple brand without switching to a Mac computer, something that for some people is tantamount to changing religions. (I used to joke that I was a Mac user who converted by marriage to PCs.)
The trend continued with the iPhone and now the iPad. The former has a strong rival in Google's Android system, but the iPad has no plausible competition on the horizon, even as it promises to permanently transform how people interact with computers. Through the iPhone and the iPad, Apple and Steve Jobs have turned people into Mac users, so to speak, without them even realizing it. It means that while Apple still relies on its cadre of loyalists to give it a buzz factor, it no longer depends on them for its very survival.
I have no idea what Jobs's resignation as CEO will mean for the culture of innovation at Apple. But for millions of consumers, the company has become an indispensable part of their daily lives, something that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. That seems likely to continue, whatever happens to Steve Jobs.