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.
That authority extended outside the company. Jobs' influence, in fact, brought into readiness the very glass needed to replace the plastic screen he overruled.
In 2006, Jobs convinced Corning to bring 1960s-era, nearly forgotten glass technology out of mothballs and make it a priority -- to work from old plans and bring the product to factory readiness in less than six months. Corning's CEO thought it couldn't be done, but Jobs assured him it would be done.
The big letdown
Apple without Jobs is still a great company, and still a conspicuously successful one. But it's not the same.
After years of spectacularly successful ad campaigns -- from " Think Different" to " I'm a Mac; I'm a PC" -- Apple began hitting them out of the park with emotional, loving ads for the iPhone and iPad.
But in the past year, the company has been struggling to get its message right.
A series of commercials featuring Apple Store " geniuses" fell flat, and Apple quickly pulled it. Critics said the ads emphasized how dumb Apple customers are compared with how smart Apple employees are.
Before that, Apple ran some strange ads hawking Siri, its beta virtual assistant feature, with major celebrities such as John Malkovich, Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel. The ads looked and felt just like Apple's normal highly polished commercials, but the celebrities made them seem like something strange. Technically, they were great. But they didn't "feel" right. Critics panned them.
Apple seems unable to fix Siri itself. After a few weeks of working great, the feature became less and less reliable over time, even as Apple promised huge expansions into China and the addition of new features, such as the ability to make restaurant reservations (which Siri could do before Apple bought it). The founder of Siri, Adam Cheyer, left Apple in June.
I get the feeling that so many of Apple's wrong notes this year would have been ruthlessly vetoed by Jobs. He would have killed the bad ads, willed Siri into full functionality, and persuaded Cheyer to stay on.
I also believe that Jobs would have lit a few fires that only he could light, which would one day result in major new product ideas.
Without Jobs, those kinds of things aren't happening. And it's starting to show.
The format of Apple's announcement this week was all Steve Jobs. The look and feel of the stage and slides. The opening with big achievement numbers, then moving into products in that unique Apple way. The cut to the big video with Apple VPs in a bright white room gushing about every detail. The bringing down of the Apple store. Every element -- the secrecy, the clue-filled invitations, the cryptic banners, the journalist blacklists, the uncontroversial-but-reasonably-hip musical performance -- was something that Jobs thought to adopt as he crafted his own unique approach to announcing products.
Most of all, an Apple announcement used to give you the feeling that Jobs had worked all year to make sure he could drop three or four surprises so mind-blowing that the entire room would gasp in unison.
There were no big surprises at this week's event. There was big information, but we already knew it all. And there were surprises, but they weren't big ones.
With Jobs on stage, Apple announcements left the audience feeling electrified. This announcement left people feeling let down.
Apple is still using the "reality-distortion theater" that Jobs conceived, but without the wizard who distorted the reality. The event was a hollow shell, a simulacrum of an Apple announcement.
Worst of all, the old Apple product announcement formula, which once conveyed an aura of supreme competence, just felt old this week.
I'm not criticizing Apple. It's still a great company, and it still makes great products. It's doing the best work it, or any other company, could do, I'm sure.
What I'm saying is that without its visionary dictator founder, Apple is quickly and quite inevitably becoming a more ordinary company.
On Oct. 5, we'll mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs. We're going to hear a lot of talk about Apple's visionary CEO and co-founder -- who he was, and what he meant to Apple and to the industry.
I think there's no better way to understand Steve Jobs' impact than to understand what Apple is becoming without him.