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Is Apple “teetering on the edge” without Steve Jobs?

Aaron Pressman
Daily Ticker

Steve Jobs was one of the greatest business leaders of all time, so it’s not surprising that Apple (AAPL) has faced considerable skepticism since his death almost two and a half years ago. And the company struggled somewhat last year, as sales of iPads stagnated and overall profits shrunk.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Kane has put doubts about Apple’s future at the center of her controversial new book, Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs.

“They’re struggling to adjust to a post-Steve Jobs business,” Kane explains in the above video. “Steve Jobs, even when not much was happening, he had this magical ability to convince people that exciting things were happening. Without him, Apple’s been just less convincing.”

In the book, she concludes that Apple under Jobs displayed an “almost supernatural ability to create devices that were radically, irrevocably, inescapably new.” But, since then, nothing.

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“Everything changed [after Jobs]," she argues. "The dilemmas multiply and deepen. Solutions slip further out of reach.”

But reviewers have criticized the book’s gloom and doom tone. Even when Jobs was still alive, Apple periodically suffered through fallow periods and missteps, followed almost immediately by absurd, and ultimately incorrect, waves of criticism.

Joining Kane’s critics -- and likely helping boosting her sales -- Tim Cook himself came out with a statement this week blasting the book as “nonsense.”

“Companies do go thru business cycles of ups and downs and maybe stagnant periods,” Kane agrees, hedging a bit on her conclusion. “I’m not making...a final judgment about Apple. What I am pointing out is it’s mortal just like any other company. To me, that’s not very controversial. I guess Apple has always portrayed itself as being above all the other companies. There’s a little bit of that going on.”

Asked what specifically would be different at Apple if Jobs were still alive, Kane lacks a convincing answer.

“The big thing is perception, perception within the company, perception outside of the company,” she says. “Apple has depended a lot on perception and the ability to drive the narrative. And, to me, it’s clear it’s losing that at least.”

But Apple under Jobs was frequently perceived as stumbling and off course. Critics said the iPod was overpriced, the iPhone under-featured and the iPad unneeded. The press exploded problems with cell phone reception in the iPhone 4 into “Antennagate,” as Kane recounts in the book. All were huge hit products, not because of any magical perceptions, but owing to compelling design and features. And Apple’s iterations and improvements, not just pie-in-the-sky new products, turned best sellers intomega-blockbusters.

Another controversial point is Kane’s largely unsupported supposition that Jobs may have purposely picked Cook for lacking vision. “Did he think a numbers man was best for the storms gathering at the horizon? Or did he want to make sure that his vision would not be replaced by someone else’s,” she asks rhetorically in the book.

One aspect of the book that’s on target is Kane’s criticism of Cook as the public face of Apple. Cook’s steady demeanor and bland persona plays poorly on television and at popular tech conferences. Apple could surely use someone with a lot more charisma and charm.

But, really, that is about perception. Apple’s true fortunes will rise and fall, as they always have, based on the company’s ability to make its existing products better and surprise the world with new products we didn’t even know we were missing.

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