Over the years, it’s been fascinating to watch Apple mainly due to Steve Jobs, its charismatic CEO who died as of writing this column.
Jobs was fantastic and flawed at the same time. He refused to take part in the industry-wide race to the bottom and instead relentlessly focused on excellence and insisted on being different. I for one appreciate Jobs dragging an entire industry out of the boring beige box mind set and in fact, changed the world a number of times.
Thanks to Jobs, Apple didn’t have to be first with technology, but yet managed to own entire markets. Take the LaserWriter printer for instance: Hewlett-Packard launched its LaserJet a year before Apple got its variant of the door.
Both printers used the same Canon engine, but the LaserWriter could be used with Macintosh computers that had a graphical user interface so you almost saw what you got.
What’s more, the LaserWriter had Postscript that made curves smooth and output sharp and legible. As a result, Apple ended up being the first port of call for desktop publishers, a market that didn’t exist before the eighties.
Thirty years later, creative people still worship Apple products but now, the ranks of Mac Marines have swelled considerably. Business executives strut around with iPhones, iPads and Macbook Airs; Microsofties love Mac hardware and dual-boot into Windows, something you didn’t see before.
It’s a remarkable story of perfection, one that Jobs pulled out of the ashes of many abject failures, but there’s a darker side to it as well.
Maybe due to his chaotic life in general, Jobs loved being in total control. That control extended to eliminating what many saw as potential revenue raisers, such as Apple-clones. On returning to Apple, he killed off the operating system licensing deals with clone makers. Later on, lawsuits against cloner Psystar were launched.
The culture of control and secrecy at Apple manifests itself beyond the products. There’s a general refusal to deal with media, and Apple goes beyond that, using legal action to silence outlets and blogs. Despite those ”1984„ ads and Macs being the darlings of creative people, Apple and freedom of expression didn’t sit well with each other under Jobs’ direction.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the way in which Apple controls features, functions, imagery and text of everything that goes into the hugely successful iTunes and App Store.
With this desire to control every step of the way, it’s curious that Jobs and Apple didn’t take full charge of how its devices are made, an area where it could be the leader and earn a huge amount of kudos simply by ensuring decent labour standards.
Owning an Apple device is a great experience, but you don’t want to be the poor sod in an Apple OEM sweatshop making one. Child labour, workers falling sick from poisonous chemicals and low wages are a shame to the IT industry as a whole, but it jars harshly with Apple’s otherwise slick image and should be new CEO Tim Cook’s first priority to sort out.
However, Cook has some pretty big shoes to fill and his first steps have been wobbly.
Take the launch of the iPhone 4S. It’s not a bad piece of kit. Dual-core processor, hardware accelerated graphics, much improved camera, and new services like Siri voice recognition and iCloud storage.
It also has the same, excellent Retina screen and impeccable design as the earlier version and should sell as well as its predecessors have.
The reaction to the iPhone 4S said was surprising though: while Cook unveiled the iPhone 4S, Apple’s share price dropped.
People were disappointed. It wasn’t an iPhone 5, and the improvements were evolutionary, not revolutionary this time. I felt disappointed too but I wasn’t quite sure why.
Then I realised what was wrong: the iPhone 4S was pretty much what everyone expected. This time around, we didn’t get the surprise new design, feature, product or service from Apple, ”just„ an improved iPhone.
It’s ”better sameness, not revolutionary change„, which is the innovation stifling stuff ex-Apple employee Guy Kawasaki says comes out of customer market research, and the very thing Steve Jobs tried to go beyond.
Apple isn’t about safe plays and gradual improvement, but drastic, eccentric strokes of genius combined with ruthless business ability. That’s a very difficult equation, but Jobs solved it. All eyes will be on Cook to see if he too can do it.