2013 wasn’t a great year for Apple. You’ve probably seen the stories about Apple failing to innovate, etc. If you haven’t seen those, you’ve probably at least noticed… that Apple failed to innovate.
One thing you’ve also probably heard is lots of people rending their clothing and keening, “It’s because Steve Jobs is DEeAadD!!!”
First, I think it’s sad that Jobs died so young. Rest in Peace.
Let me also say that I have been “a Mac” since 2004 and was formerly a big Apple fan, now less of an Apple fan. I don’t think their gadgets mean a whole lot as of almost-2014, but I do prefer the Mac platform for my personal computing.
But now let me argue against the hagiographic assertion that Jobs was the Jesus of Apple and more. I have two types of arguments:
1. People give Jobs too much credit for Apple’s success.
It’s a habit of the human mind to pick a living symbol and attribute anything and everything to that symbol. Typically, the leader of something. If things are going well, it’s to that person’s credit, and if not, it’s that person’s fault. This is understandable, since mental bandwidth is limited, but that doesn’t make it correct thinking.
I can say with certainty that while Jobs may or may not have been a necessary cause of Apple’s success in the new century, he was not a sufficient cause of the company’s success. Not unless he walked into a room and invented the iPod, iPhone, and iPad himself. At any company that big, there are a heckuvalotta people who have to be good at big jobs in order for things to turn out well.
One may credit Jobs with ideas. I haven’t read an account of what exactly he came up with or promoted within Apple after his Steve Agonistes move in 1997. But I think it’s fair to guess that he was overall a good leader for the company. It also seems pretty clear that he was an asshole and a micromanager too (he corrected people’s emails!), so it’s also probably true that, while leading Apple well overall, he also held it back in some ways. I have also heard that he was pretty disinterested in the finances of the company, which is why Apple now is sitting on a mountain of cash with no real plan for what to do with it.
I’m not trying to be a contrarian or hater. I’m just saying, hey, he was a human being with flaws and limitations, and you can’t credit him with everything Apple did right 1997-2013 (or in the earlier period for that matter).
Further, it’s simple hero worship to assume that a ton of brilliant billion-dollar ideas died with the man. For one thing, since he was alive until recently, Apple should at least have a solid pipeline based on those brilliant ideas. Currently, there is no evidence of that.
2. Apple’s success was unsustainable anyway.
Take a look at these monstrous figures:
Nearly 80% revenue growth in 2010–what?! For 2013, it’s only 9.2%, which would be enviable growth for a lot of companies.
Apple’s financial press releases:
Note that Apple’s fiscal year ends in September.
I added up the revenue for FY2013: $170.9 billion. Consider that Apple’s revenue in 2001 was just $5.36 billion!
Even 10% growth on $170.9 would require an additional $17 billion next year. That could very well happen, but that’s like adding a small industry’s worth of sales every year. Every year. And we have already lowered our expectations from the monstrous double-digit growth of just a few years ago.
The numbers alone should give one pause–I don’t care what kind of miracle products you launch, you just can’t sustain that kind of growth once you reach a certain size. But then there is no evidence that Apple has those miracle products in the pipeline. In fact, all of its current products are commodities. All. Some things, like the laptops (which don’t sell in large numbers anyway), are high-end commodities, but they have substitutes that are more than adequate. In the smartphone sector, it is arguable that Apple has already been outcompeted. In the MP3 player sector, it is arguable that the product itself is obsolete. If there is any real juice to be squeezed yet, it is in the tablet sector. Which, if you ask me, is not very exciting and already has the whiff of “that was so 2012” to it.
That means that, even if Jobs were around to introduce a new miracle product or two, sales of iPods would soon be meaningless if existing at all, sales of laptops and desktops could be growing but would still be small overall, sales of smartphones are already dodgy, and sales of tablets are very much threatened by the competition. How much of the current $170 billion is really safe at all? Not a lot. Even $50 billion in new products (no sign of which exists!) cannot stop $170 billion in old products from going bye-bye.
Capitalism is a great, fun game when you’re small and growing fast. Once you’re big, it becomes a dreary chore to fulfill the expectations that are built into the very nature of the system. I think that’s fair to say even if you think capitalism is the bee’s knees.
Apple is now in the position to which it was destined with almost mathematical certainty. It’s to Steve Jobs’ credit that he helped the company get to this level of success. But there is nothing he could have done to prevent what happens next: failure to sustain rapid growth.