Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Future of Apple: Is Past Prologue?

I was backstage with Steve at the MacWorld Expo 1996 fiasco during which, then CEO, Gil Amelio, rambled on for some 2 hours of a planned 1 hour product intro.  It was Steve's triumphant return to Apple (Apple having purchased his company, Next, to provide the future operating system for Mac.  I didn’t' speak to Steve.  We were both waiting for our respective, much delayed queues to join Gil onstage.  Days earlier he had done his own private rehearsal sans Gil.  Gil had shown up late to the rehearsal with a huge entourage, done a cursory sniff at the demos, didn't rehearse his own slides and left.

Moments before Gil went on stage live that day, his handlers were still  frantically updating his slides.  It was a disaster.  The more so because the graying, geriatric, portly Mr. Amelio had donned a "hip" Nehru style jacket for the occasion. It was immediately clear that Steve had nothing but disdain for Gil and not long after Gil was gone and Steve was CEO.  Next might have been the ultimate Trojan horse.

As for myself, I left on sabbatical while this took place (3 months sabbatical, 3 months vacation).  Then I left Apple.  I was done after 7  years there, and as I say, as an atheist, I couldn't work for Steve.

In essence I was there for the Dark Years when Steve was in exile.  Possibly the culture is different now; possibly the fact that Steve can't return to the helm again (there can be only one second coming) will mean that Apple can survive without him.  I have my doubts. 

The problem with Apple without Jobs was that everyone cared so passionately about Apple that they were willing to die for their idea of what the right thing to do was.  When I was at Apple, Apple was doing everything - no focus. Infighting, turf wars and subterfuge were rampant.  Apple was doing too little with too much for too long.  And this is not merely a picture of Apple I'm drawing from a rear view image.   Here's a fake press release I emailedaround in 1993 as rumors Jobs might return swirled (He would not return until 1996). 
Apple had become captive to "speeds and feeds" and shoving products out the door to satisfy the needs of big retailers.  They had become the customers instead of the end-users.  As evidence of how tightly wound the company was, I was nearly fired on day 3 of my employment there after I sent around a fake press release about "RISCBoy"

A Steve Jobs was needed, because only a god can herd cats.  Only a god can have the last word. Only a god can put the fear of god in you.  Sure, you say, many religions survive the death of their leader.  Yes, but they all have bibles.  Steve didn't leave any bible or tablets or scripture of any kind that I'm aware of. 

There are some parallels to the situation the company was in when he was removed in 1986.  Thriving on a new creation, (the Macintosh then, the iPhone now); under hand-picked leadership (Sculley then, Cook now), with a proprietary architecture and a closed system that is rapidly losing market share to a copy-cat rival (Windows on clone PCs then, Android now).

100 years from now will Steve Jobs name be as familiar as Thomas Edison's?  Or will he and Apple Computer, Inc. be a footnote, like the Packard car company or Atari? 

Did Steve live up to his own admonition to John Sculley not to "sell sugar water for the rest of your life?"  Did the dream of the "computer for the rest of us" morph into "the computer for the' best of us'" flanked by a myriad of expensive technobaubles?  

Don’t get me wrong,  I owe a lot to Steve and Apple Computer.  I bought my first Mac (a "fat" Mac with an astounding 512 KB of RAM a floppy and no hard drive.  It and a dot-matrix printer set me back $3600.  I became an evangelist, introducing Macs into an IBM environment at work and insisting on giving computers to everyone (thus enabling e-mail communications and a whole new level of productivity).  I was just like the guy in the ads of the time and some of the ads I could recite word for word.  "...mass production give ordinary people access to powerful technology... that which was affordable to the few becomes available to the many... the industrial revolution meets the Age of Enlightenment."

I longed to work for Apple and in 1990 I got my opportunity joining the high-end Mac group (I chose Mac over printers & monitors and Newton).   We worked long and hard.  We loved what we did.  We had fun.  I don't think we were pompous or arrogant (we were too smart for that), but we were elitist and impatient.  And in the end I lost my religion coming to see Apple as just another company selling products.  To be sure, a company more akin to Bang & Olufsen than Ford, but a corporation nonetheless. 

Jobs was creative and an innovator, but not an inventor or, I think, a person of truly historic significance.  Try this thought experiment.  What would the world be like if there had been no Steve Jobs or even if Steve Jobs had not returned to Apple?  For many people they might say their lives would not have been as rich, interesting or fun.  But what about life in general?  Would the personal computer not exist?  The mouse?  Handheld digital music players? Smart phones? Tablet computers?  Would creative people have failed to adopt digital technology?  Remember for all that Apple did, it didn't make or popularize digital SLRs, GPS units, Kindle, video games, DVRs, ATMs, Web browsers, Search engines or a thousand other product areas it might have explored.

In the end I believe the postscript shall be, Apple was Jobs and Jobs was Apple.  Steve caused to be created uncompromising versions of the products that he himself wanted; and a lot of people wanted those products too.  Will people want the products that Tim Cook wants?  Does Tim Cook know what he wants?  Do other people, especially those within Apple care what Tim Cook wants the way they cared or more aptly believed in what Steve wanted?  Or will they all want for Apple the products that they themselves want?  If history repeats itself, then the latter is a likely scenario.

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