Starting up Apple and then returning later to save the company is a very different kind of activity—and requires different skills—than navigating a $230 billion company into mid-life maturity. Steve Jobs knew that when he hand-picked Tim Cook to succeed him. Some observers still don't.
Ken Segall knows a lot about Apple. He worked with Steve Jobs in the past doing marketing, branding and even product naming. He's written a book, Think Simple, that describes the years when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was obsessed with product simplicity.
Now, Mr. Segall has written an insightful article about Apple's current affair with simplicity. "How Apple lost its way: Steve Jobs’ love of simplicity is gone." That's the lead. The subtitle adds: "[Apple's] incredible growth was rooted in his love of simplicity – but things have changed."
Indeed, things have changed a lot.
Today, because Apple is a much larger company with over $233 billion in annual revenue compared to when Steve Jobs returned to Apple (about $7 billion in revenue), many observers are unsettled by the scope of Apple as a company. The number of different products and services seems so overwhelming that the basic human desire for technical simplicity, in turn, casts doubt on Tim Cook's leadership. That's a stretch, but people do it anyway. An irrational longing for the past colors the estimation of Tim Cook for some observers.
Is simplicity in a company's offerings an intrinsic value? Or was it, in the case of Apple in 1997, simply a recipe for disaster recovery?
I worked for a large aerospace company for many years. One of the things that I saw was the life-cycle of an advanced technology program. In the early days, the company would place a firebrand in charge. Someone who could launch a project, attract the right talent, put the fear of God into everyone, obtain the funding and convince the government that we were on the right path. It's an outrageous, often simplistic, political approach.
But a leaders like that cannot suffer the steady-state work of research and development. They don't have the right temperament. They grow listless and, worse, ruin the morale of the engineers with too much meddling and inability to cope with nuance and complexities. The program now needs a steady hand at the wheel.
In the mature phase, a more cerebral program leader is brought in. That's someone who understands engineers and scientists and has their trust. His job is to keep them inspired and happy, shield them, get results, and maintain confident, low-key politics with the government. Explain the complexities of breakthrough engineering. No more agitation and drama.
Never Goin' Back Again
This is exactly what happened with Apple. As Mr. Jobs realized that he'd set the ship right and poised it for real growth, he hand-picked a man who he knew would be steady hand at the wheel. Tim Cook.
A company that is large and has hungry competitors at every turn does things differently than a company that's small and fighting for its life. Mr. Segall notes:
Markets mature. A bigger audience has more diverse needs. If Apple were to ignore those needs, they would only force customers to go elsewhere. (As they did for several years by not making a big-screen iPhone.)
On the other hand, a large and diverse Apple has occasional pockets of failure that could not have endured during the reign of Steve Jobs. Mr. Segall notes:
Critics have had a field day complaining about the growing complexity of Apple software. Apple Music [iTunes] has been attacked mercilessly, and deservedly so. I personally find parts of it to be bewildering.
Apple’s ability to make software solid and simple has come under attack from a number of normally pro-Apple sites. Not that it excuses Apple, but many forget that such lapses also happened on Steve’s watch. He famously went ballistic over the flawed launch of Apple’s early cloud effort called MobileMe.
To put things in proper perspective is important. A small company has few challenges. Products can be simple, but so is their market and opportunities. Apple, as it grows, is carrying legendary values into everything it does. No other company can design products that appeal to so many different people. To complain that they aren't always absolutely perfect is to deny what Apple is today and its prospects for the future. Mr. Segall concludes:
There is serious work to be done in rebuilding the perception of simplicity that helped Apple become the world’s most valuable company. Existing problems need fixing, as do the internal processes that have allowed complicated products to make it into the hands of customers.
That said, it’s important to put Apple’s issues in context. Despite its current challenges – and its lapses – I don’t see any other technology creating a simple experience as well as Apple.
We live in a complicated world, and the companies that deliver simplicity are the ones who win in the end.
A computer that produces an incorrect result once in a 1,000,000 computations is flawed and must be discarded. But a company, manned by human beings, will occasionally stumble. A steady, respected hand at the helm is required, lest the morale and engineering crumble right before our eyes.
There is no going back.
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