Future Tense: Whither Apple?

Alan Fackler

Whither Apple?

I believe America’s greatest strength has been its ability to cultivate the most profitable crop in human history—geniuses.  This country is the way it is because of men and women with genuine vision and the ability to move that vision into the realm of accomplishment.

In fact, our current economic woes may very well be due to a failure to invest in the next generation’s crop of geniuses.  We have spent too many years failing nurture vision and innovation.  Industry has made the near-fatal mistake of thinking that “make it cheaper” is an acceptable substitute for “make it better.”  The evidence says that it is not.

The great strength of Apple computers was always the commitment of Steve Jobs to “make it better.”  Jobs’ return to Apple was the smartest move the shareholders ever did.  (Apple’s darkest days occurred during the reign of whatshisname, the soda salesman.   Whatever experience he had managing a company that made its profits from selling carbonated sugar water, it wasn’t the kind of visionary experience that a computer company needs.)  So the loss of Steve Jobs now could be as critical a moment for the company as it was when he was forced out in 1985.  A visionary company needs a visionary leader.

Consider the Disney empire.  Walt Disney was the Steve Jobs of his time—a different industry, but no less a visionary.  Walt wasn’t afraid to take chances.  He’d already been making silent cartoons when sound technology came to the movies.  He immediately recognized the possibilities of adding music to animation.  Steamboat Willie was a gamble, but it paid off big:  it made Mickey Mouse a hit and it established Disney as the foremost cartoon studio in the country.   Everybody else was playing catch-up.

Walt continued to push the art form.  He was the first to make cartoons in color, the first to use the multi-plane camera to create the illusion of depth, and the first to produce a feature-length cartoon.  He bet the farm on Snow White.  He had to go back to the bank to borrow money to finish the film.  If it had flopped at the box office, Anaheim and Orlando would still be suburbs.

Throughout his life, Disney continued to push the limits of what was possible.  Fantasia was a brilliant and ambitious effort—a marvelous marriage of great music and astonishing animation.  And it was in six-channel sound!  Initially, it was a financial disaster for the studio, but only fifteen years later it was recognized as a masterpiece.

Walt was never afraid of risks.  As he had done so many times before, he bet the farm on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.  The picture had a marvelous cast (Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre!) and some of the best underwater effects ever shot.  Even today, the film holds up beautifully, fairly earning the reputation of “timeless classic.”
The first attempt at the giant squid sequence didn’t work.  It had to be reshot as a nighttime storm sequence.  It was expensive, but necessary.  Once again Walt had to go back to the bank.  The movie ended up being the most expensive picture ever made in Hollywood (up to that time).  But it was also one of the most successful movies of the year, of the decade.  (I saw it six times that first summer.)

Walt’s biggest gamble was the construction of Disneyland in Anaheim.  Again, he had to dance with the financiers.  There were many who believed that an amusement park was a frivolous investment, that the park would be Walt’s final folly.  But Walt had the vision to create a television series of the same name.  Like the park, the show had Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—it was an hour-long weekly commercial and children all over the country understood the connection.   Disneyland wasn’t just an amusement park, it was the first theme park.  In fact, it was a multi-themed park.

Disney World in Orlando was another big gamble, but this time Disney had the evidence that it would work—not just a park, but a whole landscape of parks and hotels.  And this time he had the resources to do it on an astonishing scale.  Disney would now control the entire resort experience, guaranteeing both a consistent level of quality and a higher cash flow.
But Walt never forgot his love of animation.  He was a very hands-on producer.  Those who worked with him often shared anecdotes about how he would act out the stories he wanted them to create.  There’s no question but that the films produced while Walt was alive had a magic to them that simply evaporated after his death in 1966.

Despite Walt’s best efforts to provide direction for the Disney empire after his passing, what was missing was Walt.  Those who held the decision-making power didn’t have his same sense of vision and imagination, didn’t have the same ability to inspire the artisans.  The films of that period weren’t just forgettable, they were dismal and embarrassing—in particular,  Robin Hood, The Fox And The Hound, The Black Cauldron Oliver And Company. It wasn’t until Jeffrey Katzenberg came in that the animation department began to recover.   When he left, the quality of the films slumped again—Treasure Planet?!!--until John Lasseter arrived.

And that’s the point.  Just as Disney’s success depended on Walt’s genius, so has Apple’s success depended on Steve Jobs.  After Walt died, Disney floundered, not recovering until Michael Eisner took the reins.  Like Walt Disney, Jobs was never afraid to take risks, never afraid to innovate, never afraid to create.  Under Jobs, Apple never put out a “me-too” product.  Even those who weren’t Apple customers paid close attention to Jobs’ annual presentations of new products.

Steve Jobs is simply irreplaceable.  He was Apple.  The company is currently in a very strong position and is likely to remain so for some time.  The iPod, iPhone, and iPad product lines still own their respective market niches.  (I’d like to say nice things about the MacBook Air as well, but I find the keyboard practically impossible for touch typing.)

I assume that like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs left his company with sufficient direction to carry them forward for the next few years.  But that timeline will run out.  The circumstances of the marketplace are going to change, the competition will ramp up its own product lines and present new challenges, consumers are going to start looking around to see what else is happening, and most important—the new leadership of the company will be caught on the horns of an internal dilemma, struggling to honor Jobs’ vision while creating their own sense of direction.  Apple may be looking at an identity crisis somewhere down the road.  It could be as soon as next year, it might not be evident for two or three years, but it could be inevitable.

None of this speculation is intended to disparage Apple or anyone who works there.  It’s merely an observation about what happens to a company when it loses its visionary.  There are a lot of other examples to point to.  The history of Ford Motors.   Chrysler with and without Lee Iacocca.  The IBM-PC after Don Estridge.  Sony without Akio Morita.  Star Trek, depending on who’s sitting in the throne of the Great Bird.  A visionary company requires a visionary leader.

Apple is approaching a crossroads.  Without someone at the helm who thinks about doing impossible things, “make it cheaper” looks like an easy shortcut to higher profits.  If Jobs has chosen his people well, they’ll resist that temptation.  I expect them to.  But part of Apple’s continuing success is its relationship with its fan-base.  (Yeah, I know I should have said customer-base, but fan-base seems more appropriate.)  Apple thrives on big splashy product announcements.  Without the regular dose of “and one more thing” will Apple retain its magic?  (The iPhone 4S was not the iPhone 5 and the fan-base was visibly disappointed.)

One of the things I’ve seen in several different industries is that sometimes people entrenched in positions of authority regard ambitious young visionaries as a threat, so they remove the threat to protect their own position.  Even worse, they tarnish the reputations of those they fear.  (I’m not naming names here.)  That’s a mistake.  It hurts the entrepreneur for a little while, but it hurts the company, the consumer, and the marketplace even more.

The smarter thing to do is recognize the genius, find the right niche for him or her, provide the resources for the genius to take on interesting challenges, to create and innovate, invest in the results—and then afterward take the credit for being smart enough to hire that genius in the first place.  Everyone will respect your management skills and regard you as a management genius.  But where the person in power is desperate to be seen as the creative genius—well, um, lack of genius reveals itself every time.  Real genius lies in recognizing genius in others and giving it wings to fly.

If Jobs left behind a cadre of dedicated team-players, the company will run smoothly…for a while.  But if he was visionary enough to have stashed a few troublemakers into the mix, guys like himself who didn’t quite fit the mold, and who were always pushing the boundaries, guys who dream of the stars, then Apple will continue to soar.

Apple can’t afford to forget its own history—what it was with Jobs, what it was without.  It’s a history of bold innovation, calculated risks, and an unfailing determination to keep making it better.  I root for Apple to continue innovating.  That kind of competition is good for the entire industry.

What do you think?


David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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