Last one, I promise, on Apple and its worldwide developer conference. This one, though, from Ben Thompson was too good to pass up:
What is critical to understand about Steve Jobs’ Apple was how much it was rooted in fear. Not fear of Jobs, but rather, the abject terror of the company ever finding itself in a similar situation to the one Jobs stepped into in 1997. A company bankrupt technically, and on the verge of being bankrupt financially, deserted by the partner it had made into a powerhouse (Adobe), and forced to accept a loan from its oldest and most bitter rival Microsoft. Jobs, and all of those closest to him, swore never again.
And so, Apple hoarded cash like a depression-era grandma; every new Apple product was locked down to the fullest extent possible, with limitations removed grudgingly at best. This absolutely extended to developers: not only were apps originally banned from the iPhone, and later on subject to seemingly arbitrary limitations and restrictions, but even today it’s unclear if non-game apps can be the foundation of sustainable businesses because of Apple’s restrictions.
There has been a lot of press discussion the last few years about how Apple will fail without Steve Jobs, its undeniable leader. But what if Apple can be a better company because Steve Jobs is gone?
I believe that there is a time in every company’s history when it is time for founders to step aside. Companies change drastically as they grow large and often times the man or woman who started it from scratch and ran it when all hell was breaking loose, when no one knew whether it could make payroll, when its future was uncertain, often times that man or woman is not the right man or woman to run it once its a 30,000 person behemoth.
Steve Jobs was clearly a brilliant man but the company that is Apple today is no where near the company it was when Jobs returned in 1997.¹ In 1997 Apple had $7 billion in revenue for the entire year. In 2013 Apple’s revenues were $171 billion. In fact, Apple’s fourth quarter profit — PROFIT, not revenues, and only the fourth quarter — was more than Apple made in all of 1997 ($7.5 billion Q4 2013 profit versus $7.1 billion 1997 entire year revenue).
Apple, as Ben points out so well, was near failure in 1997. It had been abandoned by almost every big software company. If it wasn’t for one government anti-trust lawsuit it might have been everyone. Jobs had to figure out how to keep Apple alive, and then had to figure out how to grow it. As someone who just went through a life-and-death situation with his own company, albeit no where near the size and scale of Apple, I can tell you how focusing it can be. It was definitely an all-hand’s-on-deck, batten-down-the-hatches experience. It made me fearful for every penny and mistrustful of every “partner.” It instilled loyalties in me that I never thought I’d have for non-family and made me hateful of people I felt abandoned me or didn’t believe in me. I understand completely that “abject terror” of ever finding myself in that situation again.
For Apple, though, that was 17 years ago now. Since then Apple has given us iPods, iTunes Store, Apple Stores, Macbooks, iMacs, iPhone and iPads. It has gone from an after-thought to a leader in the stock market, a thought leader on design, a king of technology, and the envy of retailers everywhere. Millions stand by waiting for what Apple will do next and hundreds of thousands of developers and artists rely on Apple for their living. In every way imaginable Apple is not even close to the same company it was back then.
And that’s exactly what I mean: maybe it was time for a change? Maybe it was time for the fear and loathing that served the company so well in the late 90s to move on? Maybe the ideals and perspectives of Steve Jobs are no longer the right ideals and perspectives for Apple?
We are seeing that now. The management team has changed substantially in Tim Cook’s few years on the job. People who attended WWDC are saying they saw a different side of the people who work for Apple, more open, more cooperative. The features and capabilities announced certainly are a sea change from the Apple of old.
There’s no denying that Steve Jobs was an incredible leader. He ran a team of five and a team of 50,000. That’s a rare skill duplicated by few. He was an amazing thinker, a fascinating strategist, a top-notch designer and technologist. And that was exactly what Apple needed for many years.
But maybe, whether sick or not, his time to lead Apple was coming to an end. And maybe he knew this. Maybe that’s why he established “Apple U” and hired top-notch professors to run the program. Maybe Steve Jobs knew, one way or another, that his time as CEO was coming to an end and that it was important for him to instill in Apple a legacy and mythology that could be carried forward without him.
What if Steve Jobs’ last brilliant move as the founder, recoverer and guardian of Apple was to leave Tim Cook to run it?
¹ It isn’t even the same company literally. Apple was Apple Computers, Inc. in 1997; now it is Apple, Inc.