The Orange View (on hiatus) Because Apple is great but it isn't perfect


Hey Siracusa, Steve Jobs was not the enemy of success

Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs benefitted from the extensive cooperation given by the subject -- Jobs granted some forty on-the-record interviews and is quoted frequently. Giving everyone a view of how Jobs made his sausage, though, has led to some confusion about just how integral Jobs was to Apple's success since his return to power in 1997.

Isaacson proves time and again that Jobs was the company's final arbiter on matters large and small. Apple followed no strategy, sold no product or, seemingly, even used no color of plastic that Jobs didn't approve. He was not the source of every single good idea at Apple, nor has anyone ever argued as much. And some of the ideas he championed turned out to be flops or mistakes, like the Mac Cube or the iMac's hockey puck mouse, though the damage was limited.

The larger point is that Apple lived or died based on Jobs' judgement and intuition. And since his judgement and intuition were among the best in the history of business, Apple thrived and became one of the greatest companies in the history of business.

That point seems to be lost on John Siracusa. On this week's Hypercritical podcast, in the midst of a length rant against Isaacson and the book generally¹, Siracusa argued that it proves in many cases that Jobs was the "enemy of success." Based on a few examples, Siracusa goes on to assert that the book is "stabbing in the heart the notion that Steve Jobs knows exactly what's going on and is responsible for Apple's success."

In fact, each of Siracusa's examples prove exactly the opposite -- Jobs had near total control, he insisted on having his concerns addressed and he almost always made Apple's products and strategies stronger as a result. Without Jobs, there would have been no success. He was as responsible as could be.

The first example Siracusa cites, from pages 404 and 405 of the book, is that Jobs initially opposed making the iPod compatible with Windows. Jobs had a legitimate concern -- having the iPod only available on Macs was driving higher Mac sales. He insisted that his team prove him wrong. They did and he changed his mind. He made the correct call. So there's no evidence here that he was an "enemy of success," just that he had high standards and legitimate concerns. Isaacson even relates further evidence that Jobs was integral to the success of iPods on Windows as he demanded an Apple-written version of iTunes that didn't suck and renegotiated contracts with all the record labels to allow music sales to Windows users.

Siracusa's second example, from page 409, is a throw-away, half line that Jobs "at one point" opposed making the iPod Mini, a smaller iPod with much less memory than the original sold at almost the same price. Again, ultimately, Jobs made the correct call as he approved the Mini and it went on to become the best-selling device in the line up. There's almost no detail or background about Jobs' opposition and the incident is reminiscent of one of Jobs' most common management and motivational techniques: reject and reject and reject until a product team met his standards.

The final example Siracusa notes, from page 501, was Jobs initial opposition to allowing third-party software, or apps, on the iPhone. And again, it's proof of Jobs' business acumen, not the reverse. Jobs wanted to have tight control over the user experience. That's precisely the same concern that led to Apple's biggest successes and its fundamental strategy with the Mac and the iPod. When he and his team found a way to address that concern, by making all apps go through an Apple approval process and an Apple-controlled store, Jobs agreed. The story was also a good example of Jobs' ability to focus. He banned discussion of the apps debate until after the first iPhone model was launched. Once the product was launched, it was a better time to have a free-wheeling debate.

For Siracusa, or anyone, to argue that Jobs was an "enemy of success" at Apple after becoming CEO² in 1997, they would need to provide some evidence that the ultimate decision maker made seriously wrong decisions (not just the occasional dud product extension or funky mouse). And maybe Jobs did -- he certainly did at NeXT -- but there's little mention of it in Isaacson's book.

And, as I've argued before, Jobs' importance at Apple went well beyond great product design. He was also the negotiator-in-chief, the recruiter-in-chief and the decision-maker-in-chief. He molded Apple's marketing efforts, honed its retail strategy and motivated its top employees. Look it up -- it's all in the book.

¹I do agree with some of Siracusa's other complaints about the book and wish it was a lot better. It suffers greatly from being rushed, particularly in the final chapters.

²Right, right, "interim" CEO until 2000. But he had all the powers running the company from that moment forward.

Posted by Aaron Pressman

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