Why Apple can't be insanely great after Steve Jobs

13 Mar 2014

My very last session at SXSW was arguably the most interesting, with Geoffrey Fowler from the Wall Street Journal interviewing journalist-turned-author Yukari Iwatani Kane. Her new book, Haunted Empire, charts what life is like at Apple in the shadow of Steve Jobs.

What became incredibly clear during her talk is that the company can never be the same again -- and nor should it try to be. Here, I try to explain why.

Too many chiefs, no Big Chief

Steve Jobs was more than a tough, demanding boss; he edged close to bully status. Sometimes he deliberately pitted one top executive against another, backing them into a corner so they had to come up with something amazing – or pay the price.

This kind of leadership meant Jobs was ruling over some incredibly big egos, with the most notable of all being Scott Forstall, the man responsible for iOS. While there was friction between him and the top executives even when Jobs was around, this boiled over with the failure of Apple Maps.

Another problem for Apple is that Steve Jobs had the indisputable authority to make big changes; Tim Cook doesn't.

“The story I heard is that [Scott] didn’t want to apologise,” said Kane. “He felt the best strategy was to admit there was a problem but not apologise. Tim Cook felt very strongly they should apologise.” While Steve Jobs might have navigated through that problem – or stopped it happening in the first place – the end result was that Scott left.

“He was a brilliant engineer and no company can afford to lose [that kind of talent],” said Kane.

Another problem for Apple is that Steve Jobs had the indisputable authority to make big changes; Tim Cook doesn't. “Apple is at a disadvantage [compared to rivals such as Google and Facebook] because its disruptor has gone,” said Kane. “At the same time you have Google with Larry Page, Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg... these people have the authority to make big decisions.”

Who’s looking after the detail?

Steve Jobs was a fastidious man: he cared about every single detail of Apple’s products and marketing. That focus appears to have dropped down a notch since his death, with Kane pointing to Apple Maps as an example.

“That was really interesting because to get something so wrong and to come out with it anyway, you have to wonder where the breakdown occurred,” she said. “The questions I’m asking are, did Scott Forstall not know? As the lead mobile software head, did his people not tell him? Or did he know and not tell Tim Cook? Did he tell Tim Cook and he decided it was okay? That was a big breakdown somehow."

Or take the iPad Air. Speaking to developers at SXSW this week, the iPad Air came in for some heavy criticism due to its 1GB of RAM – not enough when switching from a 32-bit to a 64-bit operating system, in their opinion. (If you own an Air and your apps keep on crashing, this could be why.)

Perhaps Steve Jobs would have anticipated this, perhaps not, but it seems likely that the perfectionist within him wouldn’t have allowed such a flagship product to ship with a problem that was so easy to predict.

The “insane” motivation has gone

One of the 200 interviews on which Kane bases her book was with an engineer who had worked at Apple for 15 years. “He said my job is like Sisyphus,” referring to the king in Greek mythology who was forced to roll a boulder up a hill each day, only to repeat the process the next day and forever more.

“He said, ‘I'm asked to work long hours, do the impossible in blind faith that all that is going to be part of something significant. Then that moment would come when Steve went up on stage... and that gives you the energy to keep going'.”

I finally left because that reward wasn't as great as it used to be. It wasn't as meaningful.

When Steve Jobs died, that engineer handed in his notice. “I finally left because that reward wasn't as great as it used to be. It wasn't as meaningful.”

At the same time, senior executives are taking the opportunity to enjoy life – something that wasn’t possible under Jobs, who hated taking holidays and hated his employees taking time off too.

“I think Tim is a more reasonable person,” says Kane. “What I’ve heard is that people are taking more vacations, they're buying second homes now that they have time to spend in them. They're enjoying life.”

While that’s great for them, it takes the edge off the company. “I think to continue to be the edgy, innovative company that drives innovation requires an intensity that's just insane,” says Kane. Without Steve Jobs behind them, Apple has lost its insanity.

The competition has upped its game

It would be foolish to pretend that Apple didn’t have strong competition during Steve Jobs’ second reign at the company, but in retrospect a few rivals appear complacent: Steve Ballmer’s reaction on seeing the iPhone – that it didn’t even have a keyboard – is good evidence of this.

Apple’s head-start advantage in phones and tablets is starting to fade, with intense pressure from the likes of Google and Samsung, which both have amazing resources at their disposal. And that’s not to forget the newbies such as Facebook.

What’s more, there’s the “G to G” factor…

Brain drain, or G to G

Apple undoubtedly still has the ability to attract the world’s greatest minds, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Google has become top dog. “I heard that employees had a new term for people who were leaving,” said Kane. “And the phase was: ‘Where's he going, is it G to G – going to Google?’ From what I hear there's a leaving party every week.”

Duos have gone solo

Steve Jobs did not create the brilliance of Apple products in a vacuum: together with Jonathan Ive, he designed great hardware. Together with Scott Forstall, he created ground-breaking, intuitive software. And together with Tim Cook, he created a brilliantly efficient business that delivered amazing profits.

Now all three of those people are brilliant, but as we’ve already seen, Scott Forstall has gone. Tim Cook will continue to drive efficiencies, but all the big improvements have surely been made. And Jony Ive will create great designs – but without the unique challenge of Steve Jobs, will they ever be insanely great again?

“It used to be Steve Jobs and Jony,” said Kane. “Everyone needs somebody to bounce ideas off: no matter how brilliant you are, you need that feedback to push you harder to polish that brilliant idea, and I don't know who that is for him.”

The reality distortion field has left the building

Steve Jobs would probably have been the most successful door-to-door salesman in the world, with an incredible ability to turn the most mundane into the most magical. While Tim Cook and his crew do their best to repeat the trick in their keynote addresses, no-one alive can match Steve Jobs for his reality distortion field.

But it’s too simplistic to say this alone is what made Apple’s products seem magical. There was the attention to detail already mentioned, and slick thinking to back up the presentation.

No-one alive can match Steve Jobs for his reality distortion field

Kane mentioned Siri as an example of something that wouldn’t have happened during Steve Jobs’ reign. “I know it's a project that was in development when Steve was alive, so I don't put it upon Tim Cook, but what I did wonder about was the way they marketed it. I’m not sure that he would have put a beta product at the centre of a new product campaign.”

One big problem is that voice technology is incredibly difficult to get right. It’s also something that doesn’t work straightaway. “I wouldn’t criticise Apple for Siri not being as great as it should be from the get-go, but I think setting expectations was one of the things that Apple really did well [under Steve],” said Kane.

Too many ideas, no single big idea

Apple is packed full of brilliant people, so to suggest that the company doesn’t have ideas for new products is ridiculous. But with Steve Jobs gone, and now Scott Forstall too, it’s hard to see who is there to pinpoint exactly which they should focus on.

According to Kane, Tim Cook isn’t the deciding force either. “He tends to be more of a delegator. It's what we saw with Apple Maps. He trusts you with responsibility, but if you screw up then you’re gone.”

And that leads to surely the biggest problem of all: a clear vision for the company. Even as an Apple observer for many years, and someone who’s spent more than a year writing her book, Kane can’t determine what this is.

“Early on he articulated the Tim Cook manifesto, he articulated what Apple stood for. This was right after Steve had taken leave for his transplant. But that was Apple under Steve.”

Since then, there’s been little obvious sign of his view. “He's been out there saying Apple hasn't changed; he's also said what he would do and not what he thinks Steve would do. I'm still waiting for it.”

It’s tempting, then, to simply say that someone else should take over, with Jony Ive often cited as being the obvious choice. But Kane doesn’t buy this argument. “Jony is not a businessman and, as I understand it, he isn't interested in running a business. He's a great industrial designer, perhaps the greatest of his generation, but that doesn't make him a great CEO.

It’s also tempting to point to new product releases such as the Mac Pro – a machine we gave a glowing review to, and for good reason – but Kane argues this is tinkering on the edges rather than a platform for success. “It's definitely a sleek-looking machine, but if you're going to pin the fact you're innovative on a machine that ten people are going to buy – which is expensive and not necessary for most people – then that's a problem.”

So, what’s next?

Kane wouldn’t be drawn too much on what she thinks will happen next for Apple, and it’s understandable why. The future is notoriously difficult to predict; far safer to stick with the past and present.

Tim Cook is surely a dream appointment for Apple mega-investors, such as pension funds

But all the above does make it sound like the company is heading into a calmer phase with fewer big highs. For now, that isn’t a problem. Tim Cook is surely a dream appointment for Apple mega-investors, such as the pension funds, who can rest easy in the knowledge that the existing products will become more and more profitable. If there are efficiencies to be made, Cook will find them.

What interests me is what happens if there aren't any new breakthrough products in the next few months. If iWatch is released but only gains lukewarm reviews, if the company is still heavily reliant on phones and tablets – and market share is still being eroded due to the mass growth of Android – what happens then?

Even the most conservative of shareholders will become restless, and Apple will need a new leader to take charge. Someone with vision, with enough gravitas to control rampant egos, someone who can quickly gain the respect of staff and customers alike.

Who is that person? Your suggestions below would be very welcome…

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