Apple is eventually doomed. Yes, the most valuable company on the planet will slowly fade into stagnant mediocrity. It will be replaced by something that they will not predict and they will not see coming. This horrifically efficient culling is a fact of life in technology because it is an industry populated by a demographic intent not on building a better mousetrap, but who avidly ask, “Why the hell do we need mousetraps?”
Apple’s doom will start quietly and I doubt anyone can predict how it will actually begin. It will be historians who, decades from now, will easily pin its demise to a single event that will appear obvious given years of quantifiable insight. And it will only be “obvious” because the real details will have been twisted, clouded, or forgotten entirely, so it will all seem clearer, faster, and simpler. Their explanation will start with the passing of Steve Jobs, and they will draw a clear line to a subsequent event of significance and will say, “Here. This is it. This is when it began.”
Executive rearrangements have been going on at Apple for years. Remember Mark Papermaster? Avie Tevanian? Jon Rubinstein? Steve Sakoman? Tony Fadell? Sina Tamaddon? Bertrand Serlet? Fred Anderson? Nancy Heinen? There’s likely a compelling departure backstory for all of these key players, but the sheer length of this incomplete list gives some perspective to the recent announcement regarding Scott Forstall and John Browett – no big deal. Happens all the time.
Like Papermaster before him, all the signals point to the fact that Browett was not a cultural fit, which is Apple-speak for the organism having an intense allergic reaction to his arrival. Forstall, however, was old school. In my years at Apple, the Caffe Macs chatter about Forstall was that he was the only legit successor to Jobs because he displayed a variety of Jobsian characteristics. Namely:
- He was an asshole, but…
- Success seemed to surround him, and…
- No one was quite sure about the secret recipe to achieve this success.
While I’d continued to hear about the disdain amongst the executive ranks about Forstall after I left Apple, I was still shocked about his departure, because while he was in no way Steve Jobs, he was the best approximation of Steve Jobs that Apple had left. You came to expect a certain amount of disruption around him because that’s how business was done at Apple – it was well-managed internal warfare. Innovation is not born out out of a committee; innovation is a fight. It’s messy, people die, but when the battle is over, something unimaginably significant has been achieved.
With Forstall’s departure, I believe his former lieutenants have been distributed to Bob Mansfield, Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, and Craig Federighi. While there is no doubt in my mind that these are talented and qualified leaders, are they disruptive? Are they incentivized as such? Because from where I’m standing, the guy in charge is possibly the most talented operational leader on the planet. And an operational leader’s job is ferret out and exterminate all things that make their world less predictable and measured.
The word that worried me the most in the press release was in the first sentence. The word was “collaboration”. Close your eyes and imagine a meeting with Steve Jobs. Imagine how it proceeds and how decisions are made. Does the word collaboration ever enter your mind? Not mine. I’m just sitting there on pins and needles waiting for the guy to explode and rip us to shreds because we phoned it in on a seemingly unimportant icon.
As someone who spends much of his time figuring out how to get teams to work together, the premium I’m placing on volatility might seem odd. I believe Apple benefits greatly from having a large, stable operational team that consistently and steadily gets shit done, but I also believe that in order to maintain its edge Apple needs a group of disruptors.
Love him or hate him, Scott Forstall’s departure makes Apple a more stable company, and I wonder if that is how it begins.