Apple unveiled a solid and desirable lineup of new products and services this week. But the whole announcement event just fell flat. Something was conspicuously missing.
It wasn't the products. The iPhone 5 is arguably the best phone of any kind ever built, at least for now. I'm certainly going to get my hands on one as soon as possible.
The new lineup of iPods was impressive, especially the iPod Touch and Nano. (It's surprising Apple discontinued the use of the Nano as a wristwatch; I'm still hoping it will introduce a dedicated iWatch at its October announcement.)
Apple's newly announced EarPods aren't even close to being the best earbuds available, but they're probably the best default, comes-free-in-the-box earbuds out there. They're better than the old ones.
And who can argue with Apple's big iTunes upgrade?
From a business perspective, these products will help Apple maintain its dominance of the consumer electronics industry -- and they will help its stock price maintain its insane upward trajectory.
But something was missing. Something elemental. And that something was Steve Jobs.
How Apple has changed
After the Apple co-founder and CEO's death last October, pundit chatter reflected on whether Apple would lose its magic without Jobs. The consensus was that no, Apple would still be Apple.
The reason, they said, was that Jobs left behind top-notch people to run the place (mainly the cast of characters you see in those product announcement videos, plus Tim Cook). Moreover, although Jobs was an effective leader in his later years, he was never a designer or engineer -- he was never one of the people who actually made the products and agonized over the details.
But this view completely misses what was so unique and effective about Jobs.
Because of his legendary status as one of the co-founders of Apple -- and, later, as the savior who brought the company from the brink of catastrophe to a position of dominance -- Jobs had more power within Apple than just about any major CEO anywhere ever.
That power -- combined with an iron will, an incredibly keen intuition and hard-won wisdom about which ideas are likely to work -- is what made Jobs so valuable to Apple.
In any organization, the leaders have to contend with a multiplicity of competing directions, ideas and perspectives. One persuasive VP wants to go left. Another wants to go right. So the company stands still. Or launches products that go in both directions.
Apple benefited from Jobs being able to overrule anybody in the company based on nothing more than his intuition, which was often right. And even when he wasn't right, his authority at least made course corrections faster.
Here's an example: Apple had been developing the iPhone for years. After major arguments about materials, the team had decided to use reinforced plastic on the screens for the first version. That was the plan, and everybody spent more than a year working on it.
Just one month before the first iPhone shipped, Jobs summoned his team and issued an edict: The screen would be glass. He just didn't like the plastic screen.
No committee was formed. No study was done. At any other company, a decision like that would take months to change.
But Jobs was Jobs, so the team, the glass maker, the Chinese factory -- everybody -- scrambled to unite behind his hunch. The phone shipped on time with a glass screen.
A large number of people within Apple deserve credit for great work in design, engineering, marketing and so on. But Jobs gave the company an extraordinary edge by using his unique authority to prevent the company from making big mistakes or missing big opportunities.