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Why Apple would be fine without Jobs

By Leander Kahney, Special to CNN
  • Leander Kahney says Jobs's company, Pixar, gives clue to how Apple will do without him
  • He says Pixar, like Apple, puts out successful products, led by Jobs's lieutenants
  • Jobs has created "routinization of charisma," at Apple, he says, and company will thrive
  • Kahney: As with Pixar, he's installed geniuses at Apple who can carry out his process

Editor's note: Leander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac, a blog devoted to Apple. He is also the author of "Inside Steve's Brain," a biography of Steve Jobs.

(CNN) -- Apple will be OK without Steve Jobs. Just look at Pixar.

For more than a dozen years, Steve Jobs' other company, Pixar, has produced an unbroken string of blockbuster movies, starting in 1995 with the delightful "Toy Story." The string of hits has proven as reliable as a Swiss cuckoo clock. Every year or so, the studio debuts a wildly creative and original movie -- usually to great critical and commercial acclaim.

Look back at Apple over the same time frame and it has been a similar story. Every year or so, Apple has launched a blockbuster product, starting in 1998 with the fruity iMac, which became the best-selling computer of all time. Lately, the hits have gotten bigger and bigger: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.

The interesting thing is that while Jobs micromanaged everything at Apple, he pretty much left Pixar alone. That's because after helping set the company's creative processes in motion, he left it in the hands of his trusted lieutenants, who proved more than capable of running the company in his absence.

Apple and Pixar have similar modus operandi. Both companies are run by small teams of creative insiders who tend to work methodically on one product after another. The teams work with little regard for the formal titles of their members. At Pixar, directors help write. At Apple, marketers suggest hardware features.

They work together to solve whatever issues might come up, often scrapping projects and starting over if they hit a brick wall. At Pixar, "Toy Story" was almost scrapped several times. At Apple, the iMac started life as a network computer, a dumb terminal, and was almost shelved before becoming an all-in-machine.

Most importantly, both companies "discover" new products through a process of constant iteration. At Pixar, scripts are written and rewritten, often all the way through the production. Characters and storylines are in constant flux.

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At Apple, designers make prototype after prototype. New products are constantly edited and refined. Apple's head designer, Jonathan Ive, is famous for making hundreds of prototypes of new products. Even Apple's wildly successful retail stores were prototyped in a secret warehouse.

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This is the secret to Apple's innovation under Steve Jobs. New products don't spring fully formed from his head. They are "discovered" through a process of constantly making and remaking them in Apple's labs. Designers create and edit, and start over from scratch if necessary. The iPhone, for example, began life as a tablet, but was remade when Jobs realized multitouch was a great interface for a phone.

This process is driven by Jobs' drive for excellence and perfection. He's a fussy perfectionist who never settles for "good enough." Everything is obsessively reworked until it becomes "insanely great."

In the last decade, Jobs has thoroughly remade Apple in his image. His personality traits have become encoded as the way the company does things. His perfectionism, attention to detail, even his design taste, have become part and parcel of Apple's processes, from product development to advertising.

It's called the "routinization of charisma" -- turning a charismatic business leader's personality traits into business processes. He is Apple, and Apple is Steve Jobs.

And that, I think, is what will happen at Apple after Steve Jobs leaves. Apple has perhaps the best executive team in American business. They just have to continue using the same creative business practices he has taught them, and the company will thrive.

Of course, Apple would never be the same without him. It would not have the same spark, the same magic. But it will probably do pretty well without him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leander Kahney.