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.
Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of May 23rd. The rise of the AI agents starts now.
Page 2 - The Tech News Debris for the Week of May 23rd
The Rise of the AI Agents Starts Now
Our ability to communicate with computers is constrained by the technical level of the hardware and software. In the early days, we used cryptic UNIX and DOS commands. Then came the graphical user interface (GUI) with mice, windows, and the still obligatory keyboard.
We're now entering a new phase in which we can reliably converse with computers that use artificial intelligence (AI). In the case of Viv, the next generation AI agent beyond Siri, the agent actually writes its own code, in about 10 milliseconds, to enable it to answer a question or perform a task. This video provide a preview of how we'll interact with computers in the future.
Both Elon Musk and Bill Gates know it's coming, and that's because of AI advances, the computational power in our hands and typical internet speeds are converging to enable productive conversational tasks with machines.
As we follow this technology path, Mr. Musk sees a future in which humans partner with machine intelligence, turning us into cyborgs, but worries that centralized self-aware machines could get out of control. Mr. Gates sees a future in which intelligent robots assume the burden of manual labor, but that will create complex cultural issues as humans must retrain and learn how to benefit from machine partners, not fight them. We do that now. Robots (mostly) build our cars, computers and smartphones.
Looking back at the preamble on page one, the Apple of the year 1997 could never have coped with this kind of change. Today's Apple can.
Asus Zenbo; The "Apple I" of robots
Some worry that Apple is on the wrong track, focussing on iPhones, Siri, TV and cars when the real revolution is robots. I see primitive robots like the ASUS Zenbo as the Apple I of robots. (Here's the demo.) But I also believe that Apple's experience with a true robot on wheels (the Apple car) and Siri will lead Apple to develop the successful,mass-market "Apple II" of robots a few years down the road. This will not be a toy or simple-minded companion, but rather a true family service robot.
In any case, another player in this industry, Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos, believes (correctly) that "It's the first inning of AI." It's game on amongst the tech giants.
And where will a smartphone with an assortment of apps fit in? It won't.
Soon, the hardware in our pockets will serve only one purpose: to chat with and cooperate with an AI agent to attend to all life's tasks and challenges. In turn, in development circles, that will lead to a leap-frogging as smarter humans partnering with early AI agents learn how to build better, next generation AI agents. And so on.
What a ride it will be.
Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble on page one) followed on page two by a discussion of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.