Lessons From A Bruised Apple
Apple Inc. (formerly known as Apple Computer) is one of the most gushed-about companies in the world. It is impossible to read a business publication without finding an article fawning over Apple’s success.
I personally hesitate to use Apple as an example for businesses. First, Apple has become a cliché. It is so easy for commentators to point to Apple as an example of success that it almost smacks of laziness.
You don’t need me to tell you that Apple has had numerous successes. As a journalist, I should be digging up information about successful firms you’ve never heard of, not about those that you already know.
Second, most Apple case histories focus on one man - Steve Jobs - in a cult of personality. Absent Jobs at the helm, Apple’s story becomes much less compelling.
Third, such stories usually aren’t actionable. Yes, we all know that Apple began as a Cinderella story of youngsters building a computer in their parents’ garage, but that was a long time ago. It is nearly impossible to identify any similarity between the Apple of today and your company.
All of the above has been great for Apple, but the average company (that’s you) can’t reproduce the ingredients that have engendered Apple’s continuing success.
What then is left to learn? In keeping with the iconoclastic nature of “Johnson’s World,” today we are going to examine one of Apple’s colossal failures.
In the late 1980s, Apple was off the peak of its performance, but still doing incredibly well with its line of high-end computers. Zealous followers continued to pay top dollar for Macintosh desktops, although lower-priced PCs were limiting growth of market share.
Steve Jobs had been gone from the company for several years, and it seemed that his replacement by more buttoned-down corporate types had been a good move. Led by CEO John Scully, management cast about for new products to introduce and turned to smaller devices, a strategy eerily prescient of the path Jobs would follow when he returned to Apple a decade later.
The PowerBook was unveiled in 1991. It was the first real portable computer and, though huge by today’s standards, it was a terrific improvement over its suitcase-sized predecessors. The initial release was quite successful, convincing management that they were on the right track with the development of more portable devices.
The PowerBook was a success, but it was still just a little Macintosh. The goal was to diversify beyond the computer market into things like consumer audio-video products and handheld devices. Hence the Newton.
Remember the Newton? No? Nobody else does either. The Newton was sort of an early iPhone, but without the phone. A better comparison would be the Palm Pilot, which had more success than the Newton, but like the Newton is now only a footnote in computing history.
The idea was a pocket-sized device that would be a digital notepad. Remember, this was an era when cellphones were the size of a loaf of bread. The Newton came with a stylus (which was always getting lost) for “writing” directly on its screen. This depended on the Newton Operating System’s handwriting recognition software, which didn’t work very well.
One takeaway we can learn from the Newton is that of “right idea, wrong time.” Brilliant new concepts are great, but they have to work.
An example closer to home would be digital printers who jumped on the variable imaging bandwagon without adequately beefing up RIP firepower. The capability to merge static and variable text and images isn’t very impressive without the ability to process the resultant files at print speed.
Good ideas poorly executed may often cause more harm than good to your long-term business. Failing to deliver will only tarnish your reputation.
Another lesson is what I call “everybody knows.” It was a standard assumption in the early 1990s that something called pen-based computing would replace the keyboard/mouse model of operation for all computer hardware and operating systems. In fact, this never happened.
When all the so-called “thought leaders” agree as to what the future holds, they aren’t leaders at all; they’re sheep. Be sure to step back and take a long hard look down the road before following the flock.
Make sure that the barn to which everyone is guiding you isn’t really the slaughterhouse.
Steve Johnson, president and CEO of Copresco in Carol Stream, Ill., is an executive with 40 years of experience in the graphic arts. He founded Copresco, a pioneer in digital printing technology and on-demand printing, in 1987. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.copresco.com