Hardware

Is Apple Capable of Long-Term Planning?

Is Steve Jobs a strategic thinker? Or, is Apple doomed because of a focus on tactical planning?

I want to make it clear, I don’t 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 company’s (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

Veit’s History of The Personal Computer.”)

So, I’m 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 IBM’s 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 LOT

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

times.

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 U.S. government agencies (the world’s largest computer

market) as well as big business didn’t like the idea of single-sourcing one

little bit.

(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 U.S.

Is the same boom and bust cycle about to hit Apple Computer and for the exact same reason it happened before?

I can’t be certain, but it sure looks similar to me.

Overseas markets may turn out not to be as

open as Apple certainly hopes. In fact, France, probably to be followed quickly by the entire EU,

has already declared Apple’s ITunes a consumer rip-off because the files won’t

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 hasn’t

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

50’s. 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 wouldn’t 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 isn’t 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 isn’t. The two companies are very,

very different and the reasons I question their ongoing viability are also

quite different.

Microsoft’s continuing position as a major

player probably doesn’t depend on Bill Gates, but I believe Apple’s very

survival does depend very directly on what Steve Jobs does.

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