Apple is Turning Into the Next Microsoft
We keep waiting for Apple to produce the next revolutionary product that will push them to the top, but maybe we have the strategy all wrong?
Apple fans keep speculating on the next-big-thing from Apple. Something akin to the first Mac, the first iPod, the first iPhone, a revolutionary product that changes the industry and propels Apple forward. After all, this is how Apple has always played the game. This is how we are used to seeing Apple succeeding.
I don’t think this is how the game will go down this time around. Instead something very different will happen. But to understand Apple of the future, we need to understand Apple of the past and why the past does not inform the future.
What Did Steve Jobs Do, Anyway?
Apple’s success has always been viewed as being about identifying and creating the next trendsetting product that transforms the industry. They could do that in the past because they had a visionary leader like Steve Jobs.
People often don’t understand what Steve Jobs was. As a software developer, I have spent enough time with people who take an extremely technical approach to everything. A lot of of tech geeks never understood Steve Jobs. To them, he was just a marketing guy and a bully. To most of them, Steve Wozniak was the real wizard. The unsung hero who had made all the initial Steve Jobs magic happen — magic that Jobs had taken all the credit for. It is not hard to understand why. As technical people, that is who they identify with. As a developer or engineer, you perceive yourself as solving all the real problems, while management are… yeah, what are they doing exactly?
But Steve Jobs was no ordinary manager or leader. I hate fluff like “he was a visionary!” Statements like that are so devoid of specifics that it is hard to really grasp what being a visionary really means.
Let us contrast Wozniak and Jobs to get some sense of what that means. Woz loved solving technical problems and was a true wizard at this. Even today people marvel at how much functionality he could cram into a few chips by arranging them in really clever ways. It was almost like a puzzle game to him. Woz designed elaborate computer designs on his bedroom floor for fun in the evenings. He challenged himself to make the designs smarter and more clever. He could, it seems, almost do all that stuff in his head alone.
Steve Jobs never had that kind of raw technical intellect of Woz. But he had something very different. Woz was the kind of geek who could go on about stuff like: “Look how few kilobytes this thing has and how I cleverly reprogrammed the interrupt vector tables!” Woz was a lovable guy with a boyish enthusiasm for technology that I can relate to. I know when I get worked up about some cool technology and show my wife, she is like: “Okay, but what is the point?”
But Woz never thought outside the geek box. He thought about what thrilled fellow geeks like himself. Steve Jobs, in contrast, had an entirely different angle. Jobs was always thinking about worldwide implications of technology. What technology could do in the hands of ordinary users. He thought in terms of business and products, whereas Woz mainly thought in terms of electrical circuits and assembly code.
While Woz would wire stuff together, it was often Jobs who exposed Woz to new technologies and devices. Jobs was always looking for new stuff. When making the Apple II, Jobs insisted it should be entirely silent. He wanted people to be able to sit quietly and concentrate while working on their computer. All computers back then had noisy power supply. Engineers did not care about that. It was just how things were. It was not something on Woz’s mind. But Steve manage to locate an eccentric who had designed a power supply without noise and he almost sunk early Apple financially to get this power supply working.
This is how Steve and Woz often worked. Steve was always on the lookout for new technologies and parts they could utilize. He would present these things to Woz, who would have the technical expertise to get it working or decide whether it was useful to them.
Jobs was the one insisting on the Apple II having a beautiful and professional-looking casing. At the time home computers were just kits to assemble. Kind of like an Arduino. They did not have specific cases. They were electronic gadgets for geeks. Jobs wanted to make something that a normal person could take home and put on their desk. A pre-assembled professional-looking home computer.
This is the common thread for everything Steve Jobs did. He was always for the lookout for the next thing. And unlike most other people, he really understood it when he saw it. Xerox PARC developed a lot of revolutionary ideas such as the first practical GUIs, object-oriented programming, networking and many other things. Steve Jobs took a tour.
Smart Engineers and Competent Mangers is Not Enough
And here is what so many people don’t get. They think it is all about technical geniuses working in the labs making brilliant products. But reality is that there are brilliant engineers making brilliant products all the time. In fact there is not really a lack of smart ideas.
The big problem is the huge mismatch between engineers and designers making great stuff and managers understanding the potential. Xerox was creating one potential revolution after the other in their labs, yet their managers were unable to grasp the potential. What Xerox management could not understand despite years of dropping by their own research labs, was fully realized by Steve Jobs within just minutes of visiting.
Jobs built basically two companies on what he saw on just an hour-long visit to Xerox PARC. The Mac was built on seeing the first GUIs. The NeXT company he founded later was built on doing rapid development through object-oriented programming also first observed as Xerox PARC.
This same thing played out when Steve Jobs returned to Apple after having been ousted. It was a failing company at the time, but still had brilliant engineers and designers such as Jonathan Ive, famous for designing a string of successful Macs, especially the colorful original iMacs that saved and revived Apple.
Here is the ironic thing: These colorful iMacs did not get made on orders from Steve Jobs. Ive had already designed them. The problem at Apple was the same as with Xerox: Management unable to see the potential or brilliance produced by their own employees. All management could see was that the colorful materials and shape made their computers more expensive. In their beancounter mindset they were wasting money that could have been spent on more memory or hard drive space.
Steve Jobs, in contrast, immediately saw the potential just like at Xerox. These Macs were not just pretty things. Like all Apple products, they were a combination of beautiful aesthetics and practicality. Look at something as simple as an Apple power adapter. It is designed so it can easily fit next to other designers by being thin instead of broad. It has parts to allow the cable to be wound up.
The iMac had much the same practical thinking with e.g. a handle for easy carrying. It is all this little attention to detail which makes people love their Macs. Steve Jobs had the ability to connect emotionally with the users. To see what would excite them and entice them before they even knew it themselves.
Jobs Pushing Employees to Their Limits
To be clear this is not the only role Jobs played. Jobs knew how to challenge his employees to do better work. Yes, he was an asshole. Admittedly a lot of what I read about Steve Jobs makes it hard to like him. But it was not all black and white. Some people hated Steve Jobs, but others loved him despite all his flaws. Many say they did their best work ever working for him. A lot of that was about Steve Jobs always challenging the work people did and coming with suggestions. People wrongly thing Steve Jobs was just another sales guy, marketing genius or manager. He was not.
Jobs, unlike most CEOs, spent almost all his days in the product lab working on ideas. He may not have been the one sitting in front of the CAD/CAM software drawing the lines of the next Mac or iPhone but he was the one looking at the work every step of the way, giving his feedback and coming with suggestions. And he cared intimately about every little detail. If you look up the patent holders on the Apple power supply, for example, you will find the name of Steve Jobs there. How many CEOs of PC companies do you think spends weeks participating in the design of a power supply?
While I myself have none of the talents of these guys who did the brilliant work at Apple, I have worked with bosses who remind me of Steve Jobs and who gave me an inkling of what it may have been like. Years ago I had a boss whom I initially kind of hated. He was extremely demanding and always micro-managed. He would fly off the handle if things did not go his way. In many ways he seemed like the worst possible kind of manager.
Today, however, I have to say I really liked the guy despite all his flaws and emotional behavior. Why? Because even if he could be a dick, he could also be extremely enthusiastic and grateful when you did something good. When that happened, you really felt like you made a difference. It made going to work worth it. In contrast, I have dealt with managers who never lost their temper, but who were completely mentally draining to work for. Why? Because they never had anything positive to say. Because they only focused on the negative and totally lacked ability to get excited about anything. That is what I recognize about Steve. He was the kind of guy who could get really excited about a technical solution and I bet the employees who made it felt like they owned the world. It is not enough to just constantly tell employees they do a good job. It has to be real. Nothing is more annoying than a boss which says “great work” regardless of what you do, even when you know it is crap. It feels shallow and manipulative.
Ok, What Does This Have To do With Microsoft?
I realize I derailed this who story be delving too much into the character of Steve Jobs. This story is after all about why Apple may become a new Microsoft. What exactly do I mean by that?
Microsoft had even more success in the 90s than Apple, despite having non of that Steve Jobs ability to intuit the future and create beautiful mind-blowing devices. If Apple was Alexander the Great, I feel Microsoft was more akin to the Romans.
Alexander the Great was a military genius who created a vast empire in very short time, but it didn’t last long. The Romans, in contrast, lost lots of battles. Their progress was not really marked by genius military leaders, but by the ability to regroup after defeat, learn from it, bite their teeth and go at it one more time. Microsoft has displayed some of that same dogged determination through their history.
Many Microsoft products, including Windows, have been deeply flawed and quite bad upon first release. Everybody has heard about the first Mac, but few have really heard about Windows 1.0. The next Windows version was not much better, but Microsoft kept at it until Windows 3.11, which finally gave them some real success.
This dogged determination was coupled with ruthless business savvy and strategic thinking. Understanding how to corner the market, strike and competitors, serve customers, etc. It mirrors the Roman ability to do solid Empire-building. They may have lost lots of battles, but they knew how to retain their winnings and solidify their gains. Alexander the Great never left such a legacy. He did not create a lasting empire. He did not understand how to build an empire.
A Roman Replaced the Macedonian at Apple
If Steve Jobs was Alexander the Great of Macedonia, then perhaps we could think of Tim Cook as the new Roman leader of Apple. The Romans may have lacked the military genius of Alexander, just like Tim Cook lacks the product and design genius of Steve Jobs, but like a Roman he understand how to build an empire. He understand how to create effective lasting organizations.
We may never see that spark of vision at Apple in the future that marked the reign of Steve Jobs, but we may see the same strategic thinking and careful planning that built Microsoft. Apple is building strategic advantages with their supply chains and market muscles. They utilize their volume to build silicon chips that their competitors cannot do. Tim Cook is ruthlessly exploiting the scale of Apple and their vertical integration.
What Will Future Apple Success Look Like
Thus there will be no next-big-thing from Apple. Rather it will be all about strategic execution and refinement. It will be about building a gradual and strategic lead with their Apple silicon-based CPUs. Having longer battery life and higher performance per dollar than the competition allows them to offer superior products in the premium segment where the profits are.
Apple has a small share of the overall computer market but has already commanded something like 60% of all the profits. They look poised to take an even larger share of the profit in the market. With cheaper high performance chips, with lower watt usage, they may be able to squeeze out a lot more of the competition in the premium segment, thereby leaving PC makers to fight to the death in low margin high volume market.
Do We Want This Future?
I admit that I would rather see a future with great new products. But what you wish for and what is realistic is two different things. Tim Cook is not going to revolutionize Apple. Instead he is going to build an empire stone by stone, one strategic decision after the other.
But is that really so bad? Tim Cook may be less exciting than Steve Jobs, but he is a nicer guy. We need that too. This Apple future does not come without benefits. It comes with many of the same benefits that Microsoft gave their users: Universal acknowledgement and support.
For those who are younger you don’t know what being an Apple user was like 20 years ago. It meant being an outcast. You could not get on networks. Your browser could not use all web pages. You always felt like a second class citizen in the computing world. Ignored and not taken serious. Today Macs are first class citizens. They are all over in corporations. That was hard to imagine 20 years ago. I never envy any software on Windows. Quite the opposite! I feel I have such a rich selection of software today on the Mac that I would feel lost on Windows.
That is what Microsoft gave Windows users in the 90s. A world that revolved around them and catered to them. That is what Tim Cook’s Apple will give us: An Apple that matters. Where being a Mac user is no longer some oddball decision, but a normal one. Start at a company and there is a high chance you get to choose if you want to use a Mac or a PC.
It means when a new cool game comes out, it might actually work on your Mac. I don’t know about you, but I think I am willing to accept a boring Mac future where I have all these benefits that used to be exclusive to Windows and PCs. Or how about this? You may be able to get the same kind of specs on your Mac as on a PC without paying a noticeable premium? That is what Apple Silicon has the potential to give us. Or maybe it already has.