Is Steve Jobs a strategic thinker? Or, is Apple doomed because of a focus on tactical planning?
I want to make it clear, I dont know Steve
Jobs. However, a friend of mine, Stan Veit (Computer Shopper) knew him and Woz
well enough to offer them their first chance to show the Apple I at an east
coast trade show (Atlantic City, August, 1976) by sharing his companys (The
Computer Mart, 314 Madison Ave., NYC) table with them.
(There is a picture of a scruffy looking
Steve Jobs at the show, standing behind an Apple I and next to Dede Veit in the book, Stan
Veits History of The Personal Computer.)
So, Im not guessing about everything.
Also, I used to work for Wang Labs, the
significance of which should soon become manifest.
Apple started out with a nice computer but to
compete with the IBM PC the company turned to the Macintosh, a very closed,
proprietary system which was arguably superior to the PC, but, mostly because
of pricing and the proprietary nature of the computing environment, it failed
to gain more than a toe hold in the personal computer market. At the time of the famous Super Bowl commercial I was impressed by the concept, but wondered just who was going to buy these computers in large volumes if it wasn’t the very big brother companies being satirized.
Yes, I know it was IBM which was the specific target,
but subtext is critical in commercials and many companies proudly compared
themselves with IBMs successes so the commercial indirectly targeted them also.
But perhaps the only target audience ever intended for the Mac were the graphics artists and big brother haters who ultimately became such loyal fans.
Certainly that first generation of Macintosh computers
really caught the imagination, although my Tandy Color Computer (Motorola 6809
cpu) was actually superior in many ways (it ran OS-9, cost a
less, was color, had a considerable library of games and applications, etc. I
even had an optical drive on mine so, after driving 90 miles to the nearest Apple dealer, I turned around and drove right back home.)
Apple and the Macintosh did very well
until the market became saturated. About that time Windows had developed into a world-class
user-friendly competitor in the PC market and Apple fell on very hard
In hindsight it appears that there was
actually a fairly limited market for the proprietary Macintosh (with the size of the potential world market you can sell a lot of comptuers and still be a bit player). Once the initial market was filled, demand dropped
off considerably. A serious blow for the
future of the Mac was the fact that
market) as well as big business didnt like the idea of single-sourcing one
(Here is where my association with
once-strong Wang Labs becomes noteworthy. I have some experience with
proprietary systems, having closely watched the collapse of a company which
insisted on remaining a single-source proprietary vendor to the point where the
last two installations I used was the free one donated by An Wang to The
National Press Club of Washington (a brilliant PR move). At about the last big
government user was finally switching over to PCs and it was the most
conservative of agencies, The U.S. State Department hardly on the forefront
of technological advances although the SD Credit Union is good (GRIN).) Since Wang was ahead of the PC, the situation wasn’t identical, but few in the company doubted that staying proprietary in the face of IBM’s PC is what killed Wang Labs.
Recently Apple has been rescued – mainly on the
back of the iPod – but also because of a move away from a Macintosh which only used a
proprietary OS to one running a flavor of Unix and even one based on Intel chips.
The iPod too is also arguably over priced and
is certainly based on a proprietary technology. Also, it may well be reaching a
point of market saturation, at least in the
Is the same boom and bust cycle about to hit
Apple Computer and for the exact same reason it happened before?
I cant be certain, but it sure looks similar
Overseas markets may turn out not to be as
open as Apple certainly hopes. In fact,
has already declared Apples ITunes a consumer rip-off because the files wont
play on competing systems. This affects Microsoft also, but hardly threatens the company bottom line.
The possible saturation of open markets for the iPod, along with the way Apple is rapidly
moving the Mac into the PC world, led me to ask the opening question, Is Apple
CAPABLE of long-term thinking?
The Steve Jobs of the early days could be
forgiven for short term thinking after all, he was a kid who invented a
company (a GREAT company) in a garage, but, while he was still able to ride to
the rescue of Apple a few years ago, it certainly looks as if someone there still hasnt
learned the basic business lesson taught by Wang, the Macintosh, amnd the exhausting
battle over a video tape standard. Standards battles have few winners and, in
the long term, open systems usually survive longer.
Apple is now 30 and Steve J. is entering his
50s. While he has proven once again that he can take a company from almost
nothing to the top and certainly understands what will appeal to consumers,
what has he done about finding a replacement? Someone who will be able to
continue doing what he was able to do twice?
Since they would have to be motivated, creative,
and probably wouldnt fit in a corporate mold anyway unless they molded the
company around themselves, is it even possible to find such a person?
When he left Apple the first time the company
almost folded. When he came back, it surged. Am I the only person who sees a
pattern here? Although Steve Jobs isnt Apple, in a very real sense Apple IS Steve
Jobs and if he gets bored again, or runs out of ideas, or for any reason again departs the leadership position in the company , what will Apple look like a few years down the road? Apple (except for the iPod),
is rapidly becoming just another generic computer company.
If this seems like a case of Deja Vue after
my big blog posting on Microsoft, it really isnt. The two companies are very,
very different and the reasons I question their ongoing viability are also
Microsofts continuing position as a major
player probably doesnt depend on Bill Gates, but I believe Apples very
survival does depend very directly on what Steve Jobs does.
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