John Sculley is Coming to Town!

Allow me to post my first critical piece.

I was trawling Google News the other day when a headline jumped out at me. “Former Apple CEO to launch Obi Mobiles in Kenya,” it read. Being a technophile, I was on the page before you could say “Jack Robinson.” According to the article, a former Apple CEO by the name of John Sculley, will be in Nairobi to launch a low-end smartphone called Obi Mobile. John Sculley is the man who shunted Steve Jobs out of Apple. Steve Jobs is the man who arguably created the smartphone. As the British would say, “This is a bit rich”.

For anybody familiar with the history of Silicon Valley, the name John Sculley sets off alarm bells in their head. To his credit, John Sculley accomplished some financially sound and reasonable things while at Apple. But he threw Steve Jobs out of his own company. The back story goes like this.

John Sculley accomplished some ground-breaking things as a marketing head at Pepsi. He literally put Pepsi in the game versus Coke from scratch. Now in the FMCG world, that is a huge achievement in and of itself. Some of the advertising formulas he pioneered against Coke were used by Pepsi for over 3 decades. He also turned around their food division from loss-making territory (83 million dollar revenues and 16 million dollar losses) to the most profitable division in the southern hemisphere (400 million dollar revenues and 30 million dollar profits).  So to Sculley’s credit he was a hotshot in those days, one of those corporate rock-stars who get head-hunted for major positions. As a sidenote, Sculley was also the son-in-law to Don Kendall, CEO of Pepsi Co from 1971 to 1986. Venkatesh Rao would most certainly have a couple of things to say about this.

Steve Jobs picked up on Sculley’s abilities and sold him the job of selling the personal computer to America. Jobs used that signature line immortalised in geek-speak, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Sculley was sold and he jumped ship from Pepsi to Apple where he committed the crime many techies will remember him for.

Far be it from me to imply that Steve Jobs was by any means a saint. Jobs was NOT an easy man to work with. At the time of his first departure from Apple in the 80’s he had been responsible for 3 failed products. If the Macintosh failed he would have been going onto his fourth. And unfortunately Sculley would have been the fall guy. So this ‘clash of titans’ was inevitable at the time. On the other hand, given Silicon Valley’s new-fangled acceptance of failure, and the runaway success the Mac and Windows have had, Steve Jobs was ahead of his time and should have been backed.

They say that by the time of his final departure as a result of a rather aggressive form of cancer, Jobs’ nurse had been changed a flipping 67 times. 67 nurses threw their hands up at this guy in all of a few months! Even after his return to Apple in the 90’s, his deadlines were tight, his attention to detail microscopic and his demands gargantuan. But you know what? Steve Jobs both shipped and sold3, setting him apart as a very rare calibre of technophile. Courtesy of him we have the modern GUI, iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Additionally Apple is among the largest tech stocks and brands in the world today. So much so that Carl Icahn considers it vital to provide his advice on the stock. Come to think of it Carl Icahn and John Sculley are in a way the same kettle of fish.

In the interim period between Jobs leaving Apple and ‘The Return of the King’ he matured as a manager-innovator and produced some interesting results. He worked in and on Pixar which is responsible for some of the best animations in the market in the ‘recent past’ such as Up, Shrek, the Toy Story’s series, the Finding Nemo series and so on. Interestingly, Pixar incorporates facial expression research written about by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink1. Jobs also built up a company called NeXt which was acquired by Apple in 1996. It was via this acquisition that Jobs returned to Apple.

Looking back at the period between the Macintosh in ’86 and the iPhone in the noughties, allow me to give my hypothesis on how things turned out. The computer interface which you use today, (likely Windows) is called a graphical user interface (GUI) in geek-speak. Back in the 80’s the GUI was a revolutionary leap in computing from cursor-based consoles which basically required users to type in strange memorised commands. This GUI-based approach to computing was instrumental in the runaway success of the personal computer in the 90’s. 2 people recognised this in the 80’s namely Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Jobs was first off the blocks with the Macintosh GUI. His exit from Apple severely hampered his vision for the development of the PC. We all know how Bill Gates’ story turned out. In retrospect, this general outcome was good because it allowed the development of a separate hardware industry with Intel, AMD and so forth. It is possible that if Steve Jobs had had his way then, Apple might have reigned supreme over both the hardware and the software sections of the computer industry. This would have stifled innovation in both areas.

My hypothesis is that Jobs, being the tinkerer that he was, and having been one of the real pioneers behind the GUI, was the first person to recognise the implications of the convergence of a number of factors:

  1. The rapid miniaturisation of the feature phone (kina 3310 and Sagem)
  2. The feature phone’s rapidly increasing computing power
  3. The feature phone having crossed a certain threshold of computational power2

For Jobs this meant that the feature phone was ready for a more advanced GUI. It must have been déjà vu to him, a replay of the 80’s script but with a (happily) different cast. This was new product time and another shot at world domination. Shortly thereafter the iPhone and the iPad appeared.

This brings us to what I find to be the oft-antagonistic relationship between innovation and the organisation. On one extreme we have the patron and the craftsman working together, while on the other extreme we have the craftsman producing innovation in spite of the efforts of the organisation. Somewhere in the middle we get the Microsoft model where the craftsman is the patron. It’s a very sweet spot, and sadly to say very rare.

A sterling example of patron-craftsman synergy was Alfred P. Sloan and Charles F. Kettering of General Motors (GM) in its halcyon days. Sloane built General Motor’s into the industrial juggernaut that it was in the 60’s and 70’s. GM itself was to some extent built around its research labs. GM’s research labs were built around the genius of one man called Charles F. Kettering. Now Alfred P. Sloane said that a man who can produce exceptional results/innovations is one out of ten. The man who can produce results/innovations regularly is one out of a hundred and he man who can produce exceptional results/innovations all the time is one in a thousand. We are lucky that Sloan recognised just how exceptional Kettering was and built GM Labs around him. Results abound for us to see. Besides GM’s domination of the US auto industry till the 80’s, Kettering holds 186 patents to his name.

You may wonder why I seem vitriolic towards Sculley. The reasoning goes like this. Jobs and Sculley are on the other end of the spectrum where the craftsman and the patron work at cross-purposes to one other. Innovation is an art and the domain of the artist. The source of art and innovation is often solitary confinement with the medium of expression. The counter-intuitive thing about this solitariness is that art/innovation is meant for public consumption. However good the artist/artisan gets, there comes a time when he/she must finally reveal his art to the public. This point is critical because he must at that point deal with the world’s perception of his art. Jobs’ innovative art form of the GUI and the PC were shut down by Sculley despite them being exactly what was needed at that time. That Intel and Microsoft are each multi-billion dollar companies to this day is testament to this fact.

So to cut a long ‘rant’ short, if the execs at Obi Mobile were really serious about their business, they should have been a lot more discerning in their choice of brand ambassador.

  1. That research identified the various facial muscles related to different attitudes and emotions. This explains why the characters in animations have such clear personalities and communicate so well.
  2. As a matter of fact, the reason that Jobs’ Macintosh PC bombed before he was tossed out of Apple was because the Mac’s GUI consumed too much computing power. PC’s were not yet ready for that kind of interaction. It was like running Windows Vista OS on a Pentium 1.
  3. Shipping is an engineering term for getting a product completed on time (and under budget). This is normally a feat especially in consumer electronics where product cycles compete with their customers’ brief attention spans vis a vis the latest fad in electronics. Engineers who can sell, whether to the mass market or to limited niches, are a very rare breed. Engineers who can both ship and sell are the rarest breed of all and as they say, worth their weight in gold.
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