Friday, January 16, 2009

Apple After Jobs

Cringley -- whom I regard as so wrong about Apple that he's nearly an inverse-barometer -- says Apple will be stronger without Jobs. This may be so, but what he's got to say about Jobs' strengths doesn't really address how Apple will change with him gone.

Contrary to Cringley's claim, Jobs didn't learn hands-off management from his experience with Pixar. At Pixar, his subordinates learned how to keep him away so they could work. Alan Deutchman's The Second Coming of Steve Jobs makes this pretty clear. The extraordinary thing Jobs did at Pixar was to notice, after the Netscape IPO, that you didn't need several years of profitable books to raise money any more, so he raised enough money to make Pixar financially strong enough to renegotiate its deal with Disney, then negotiated to extend Pixar's contract for Disney-distributed films, and increase its share of profits formerly retained by Disney (by accepting a share of the promotion expenses, which had been Disney's leverage to take the lion's share of near-broke little Pixar's film receipts). Jobs saved Pixar not because he learned some new management technique, but because he discovered a new pitch and made good on it.

Likewise, NeXT didn't teach Jobs how to be frugal, it simply taught him that personally guaranteeing an insolvent company's debt was a good way to drive yourself into making yet another pitch. This time, the pitch was not to an existing partner but to a suitor: Apple. Jobs pitched to Apple executives the same technology he pitched to developers he recruited to NeXT, complete with the object-oriented delight of re-usable development product and the possibility Apple would become beloved by developers again instead of shunned. It was a pitch he'd made before, and he updated it to sell not a workplace to an engineer, but the whole company to a buyer dying for a solid operating system with a modern development platform.

Jobs is a pitch man. Jobs is so good at it everyone believes he has an RDF. (Google "Reality Distortion Field" and see what you get. This is a very well-known phenomenon documented for decades.) According to Deutchman's interviewees, even Pixar's sophisticated Ph.D.-level subordinates left meetings with Jobs with their eyes glazed, until later while discussing the details driving home and could really think about what he'd said ... and realized each iteration was a hopeless fantasy. You see, Jobs thought Pixar's product was multimedia storage tools, not multimedia content. Jobs' Ph.D. employees just made the animated short films to demo the storage tools, you see ....

What Apple will lose is a great pitch man. What Apple might gain is genuine management expertise at the very top. This could be a good trade-off, especially if Apple continues to make products that seem so nearly to sell themselves.

Incidentally, Walt Mossberg gave a short interview on Jobs' health and Apple, and praised Jobs as a product-oriented leader with an eye for design, but pointed out that Jobs' subordinates are doing the detail work that makes the execution at Apple what it is: the retail boss running the Apple Stores, the design team led by Jonathan Ive, and the component deals worked out by Mr. Cook. All the things that go right at Apple seem lined up to keep going well, just as when Jobs last announced he was on a health-related departure.

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