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Apple Inc. Would Be in Trouble With or Without Steve Jobs

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Oracle CEO Larry Ellison sees a tough road ahead for Apple without Steve Jobs. But the company was headed there anyway.

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"He was brilliant. I mean, he was our Edison. He was our Picasso. He was an incredible inventor."

That was Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison describing Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs in an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS This Morning. Describing him as his "best friend for 25 years," Ellison spoke of Jobs as an irreplaceable visionary and foretold Apple's grim future without its boldest leader at the helm.

"Well, we already know," he said, referring to Cupertino's trajectory. "We conducted the experiment." Ellison traced his finger in an upward slope. "We saw Apple with Steve Jobs." And traced it back down. "We saw Apple without Steve Jobs." Back up. "We saw Apple with Steve Jobs." And down. "Now, we're gonna see Apple without Steve Jobs."
Even though the stock surge triggered by Carl Icahn's tweet yesterday would have accounted for a slight jump in Ellison's predicted trajectory, the Oracle chief nevertheless predicts a tough road ahead.

[Also see: Carl Icahn Joins Apple Long Play]

When Steve Jobs passed nearly two years ago in October 2011, analysts, investors, pundits, fans, everyone wondered where Apple was headed without Steve Jobs leading the flock. How was Apple going to be able to survive, let alone flourish, without the man who spearheaded the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad and brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy?

But even if Jobs were alive and well and still running Apple on a full-time basis, the company would be in the same position it is today.

Back in early 2011, I wrote that Apple, for better or worse, had basically painted itself into a corner. Given its lineup of computers, media players, phones, and tablets, the company had most, if not all, of its customers' bases covered. Communication, social media, travel, commerce, entertainment, work -- all were tended to by a small handheld device in one's pocket or a magazine-sized tablet in one's knapsack. And because the products were so versatile and so successful, there was little for it to introduce -- at that stage, anyway -- that would blow a consumer market away like it had already done.

We continue to hear rumors about an Apple HDTV set and wearable technology like a watch in the pipeline, but neither seems nearly as essential as a high-capacity personal media player in 2001 or a smartphone in 2007. For many folks, another TV set or Bluetooth-linked watch in 2013 (or 2014, or 2015) is wholly unnecessary and even a little boring.

And "boring" is an operative word, albeit a tad extreme, for the current state of the mobile industry, which is Apple's current bread and butter.

The innovation over the better part of the last decade has been staggering, and we're left with choices from Apple, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) that would provide any customer, at the very least, a very decent and capable smartphone option. The hardware and operating systems of each company's flagship device offer an amazing array of features and abilities we would never have dreamed possible prior to the iPhone's release, leaving users with an above-par experience no matter which ecosystem they choose. And when everyone is, more or less, on equal footing, it makes the former industry leader look a little less special.

But where does that leave us? Where can we go from here?

The whole industry is in a bit of a holding pattern in terms of revolutionary, groundbreaking releases. Considering that most of us have been toting a smartphone in our pockets for at least a few years, every subsequent unveiling of yet another black rectangle takes another shred of surprise and cachet from the concept. It seems that manufacturers and developers, not just Apple, are at a bit of a loss as to where to take the smartphone industry that doesn't involve a better camera or a longer-lasting battery.

That's not to say there's a shortage of pretty innovative software features, but they're coming almost exclusively from six miles north of Cupertino.

In its mad dash to out-innovate Apple, Google has surpassed the tech giant not only in market share, but also in app store downloads and software that's as impressive as it is essential. At this point, many of the best apps on an iPhone come courtesy of Google: Gmail, Google Now, Google Maps, Google Chrome, Google Drive, and others are arguably better than iOS's default offerings. And the polish that Mountain View has given its Android OS has been noticeably popping up in various iterations of iOS. (Control Center, anyone?)

And that's to say nothing about Google Glass or Chromecast.

Google has taken the market-leading reins and made Apple look less innovative than we know it can be. And it might have to do with the residual complacency, and a dash of arrogance, leftover from the Jobs era.

Jobs was never one to be told what to do. He decided where he wanted Apple to go. He decided which features to implement. Unfortunately, by the time the iPhone 4 debuted, things were starting to look mighty familiar. In the years leading up to the end of his run as CEO, Jobs appeared to be playing it safe while his competitors were shooting for the moon in terms of features. Apple dragged its heels and took way too long to play catch-up with some pretty big components: cut and paste, multitasking, 4G LTE, voice commands, etc. (And we're still waiting for widgets and the ability to change the default keyboard!)

Jobs left behind a road map of where to take the company when he handed his chair over to current CEO Tim Cook. The extent of that battle plan is a mystery outside the hallowed halls of the Infinite Loop campus, but -- assuming a very basic R&D timeline -- it surely included a rough draft of what to expect in the following year's iPhone 5. However, when the iPhone 5 ushered in a larger, 4-inch screen and LTE connectivity in 2012, the industry had long moved on. (It didn't help that execs actually touted panorama photos on stage either.)

And from the looks of iOS 7 and the dull rumors surrounding yet another iPhone "S" release, that heel-dragging trend doesn't appear to have changed much.

Jobs was inarguably a visionary leader, but the man wasn't infallible or immune to an arrogant dismissal of where the industry was headed or what customers actually wanted. A continuation of his leadership would leave Apple exactly where it is today: a former industry leader behind the innovation curve, still searching for a way to get back on top.

See also:

Apple Inc. Stock Soars on Twitter Frenzy, Yet Value Investors Could Still See More Upside


Samsung's 'Galaxy Gear' and the Coming Future of 'Glanceable' Tech

The Hyperloop: What's Next for Elon Musk's 'Fifth Mode' of Transportation?
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