Apple Death Knell #58: Apple = Sony

Apple = Sony. So spaketh George Colony, and so landeth Mr. Colony in the Apple Death Knell Counter as entry #58. Writing for Forrester Research, Mr. Colony gives voice to a thought shared, or at least feared, by many. He said that without a new charismatic leader to take over Apple, the company will go the way of other once-great companies like Sony, Polaroid, Disney, and even Apple after Steve Jobs was ousted from his company in 1985.

Apple Death Knell Counter

The Apple Death Knell Counter

Let’s just go right to the death knell itself, and then we’ll chat about it:

When Steve Jobs departed, he took three things with him: 1) singular charismatic leadership that bound the company together and elicited extraordinary performance from its people; 2) the ability to take big risks, and 3) an unparalleled ability to envision and design products. Apple’s momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation. Like Sony (post Morita), Polaroid (post Land), Apple circa 1985 (post Jobs), and Disney (in the 20 years post Walt Disney), Apple will coast, and then decelerate.

Here’s the deal. He could well be right—unless, of course, he’s wrong.

Hold on a second, don’t burn me at the stake for taking the easy way out; there’s more to my pithy dismissal than it might appear. What I mean is that the notion that Apple needs someone talented at the top for the company to continue being great is a compelling one, but only time will show us whether or not that talented person has to be the same cult-of-personality-inducing figure that Mr. Colony argued is required.

The reality is that Apple can’t remain on top forever, though no one seems to have told IBM that. At its heart, Apple is a consumer products company, and heretofore, every consumer product company has had a cyclical life. At some point in its future, the wrong person will be put in charge of Apple, and the wrong decision(s) will be made on what to say yes to and what to say no to.

The question is when will Apple see that change? Many thought it would happen the day after Steve Jobs died. Some thought it would happen as soon as Mr. Jobs took his first or second medical leave of absence. Still more have said (or thought) that Apple can coast for a few years on what Mr. Jobs already set in motion (i.e. two to five years).

Mr. Colony is clearly in that camp, and again, he could well be right.

Interestingly enough, however, my thought is that Mr. Colony is missing a fundamental thing, and that is Steve Jobs himself. The tech icon told biographer Walter Isaacson that the thing he was most proud of having created was Apple, not one of the many disruptive products and services that Apple made.

“Part of my goal has been to make Apple the world’s best company, and having an orderly transition [of leadership] is key to that,” he said near the end of his life.

In the last quote of the book, he said, “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary.”

While he worked on products and marketing a lot, and these are the things most people know about his work at Apple, the book showed us that making sure Apple could outlive him was a major priority for him.

I think about this whenever someone writes or says something like Mr. Colony did in his essay for Forrester. The thing I keep coming back to is if one thinks that Steve Jobs was the bee’s knees and the key to all those great products, how can you be so quick to dismiss his ability to build a company?

That’s not to say that Apple can never fall—a downside to the company’s saga is only a matter of when, not if. I think, however, that the “when” in that formula is many years off and that Apple will continue to be the innovative and disruptive force that it is for some time to come.

George Colony’s analysis misses the boat. It’s kind of like Toni Soccanaghi having the temerity to ask Tim Cook during Tuesday’s earnings report conference call why Apple isn’t following Microsoft’s direction of converging tablets and PCs (which earned him the now-famous ToasterFridge rebuttal from Mr. Cook).

Both require some inside-the-box thinking that completely ignores some key aspects of reality.