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Who Killed Apple Computer?

This essay has received some attention on the web, giving it an audience beyond those for whom it was written. So I think a little introduction is in order.

This was written for former Apple employees, and in particular for those who worked at Apple during the same time as me, when the company grew, reached an apex in revenue, and then almost died. It's an effort to draw some lessons from that experience.

It is not, despite some things you may have seen on the web, a critique of the current incarnation of Apple. But I think that's what some readers believed this essay was about. If that's what you came here looking for, click someplace else. On the other hand, if you want to see an opinionated take on a chunk of Apple's history, read on. --MM

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It's great to see so many people excited about the things they accomplished at Apple. The accomplishments were wonderful, they improved people's lives, and they are worth celebrating.

But I think we should not lose sight of the fact that Apple Computer as a whole failed in the mid- to late-1990s. Our fundamental goal at the time, if you remember, was to transform the world by setting people free from bad computer design and stifling corporate dictates. "The Computer for the Rest of Us," we promised.

Today "the rest of us" are a tiny percentage of personal computing. The company has survived, to the immense credit of the people who work there today, but it's not the one we were trying to build.

Although we successfully forced personal computing to move to the graphical interface, since then fundamental innovation in personal computing has ground to a stop. The operating system most computers users work with every day is stuck in 1993, with very little fundamental improvement in the last decade. The applications on users' desktops, bloated beasts like Word and PowerPoint, haven't substantially improved in years.

Why? Because they don't have to change. Because there's no effective competition. Because Apple failed.

Those of us who use Windows every day at work are reminded constantly of our company's failure. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is being punished along with us.

Yet no one takes responsibility for what happened. In fact, most of us who were at Apple at the time claim passionately that the company's collapse wasn't our fault. Some have written whole books to prove that they had no blame for what happened.

It's a terrible gap in company's history that no one takes responsibility for its fall. So let me fill in that gap and let you know who was responsible.

I did it. I killed Apple Computer.

Of course you helped too, if you worked there. Sure, we were assisted by a number of feckless executives, and by venal behavior at Microsoft. But more than anything else, Apple -- the old Apple we knew and loved, the one we're celebrating here -- was destroyed by its own diseased and dysfunctional culture. By the time Steve Jobs returned to the scene, very little could be saved. I salute him for what he accomplished; I don't think anyone else on this Earth could have pulled it off. And maybe the new Apple he's building will someday have the same authority and heft as the old one. But let's not lose sight of the fact that he had to burn the old company to the ground in order to salvage something viable out of it.

What went wrong?

The story of Apple from the late1980s to the late 1990s is, in my opinion, a story of individual brilliance and group stupidity. From the moment I joined the company in 1987, I was amazed by the energy and intelligence of the people around me. Never in my career have I worked with brighter, more interesting, more capable people. Probably I never will again. And yet, despite all our braininess, as a team we were too often the Keystone Kops of computing.

Although we had some important successes in the late '80s and '90s (PowerBook and the Power Mac come to mind), the rate of innovation was much lower than earlier in the '80s, when Apple sprinted from the original Macintosh to the Macintosh II in an extraordinary burst of creativity. For every innovation we brought to market, a dozen great ideas were strangled in the labs. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on massive projects that yielded exactly nothing. Remember Taligent?(1) Kaleida?(2) Jaguar?(3) OpenDoc?(4) The list is almost endless. Even today, the PC world has yet to fully deploy innovations that we worked on and failed to bring to market in the 1990s, things like component software and the advanced user interface ideas in the Sybil(5) project.

It's easy to blame all these failures on the company's senior execs, but frankly, I don't think they were powerful enough to inflict damage this comprehensive. Far too often, the problem was that we didn't work together toward common goals. This was partly due to the usual politics you get in any large company, but in addition we all believed we were so smart that we were unwilling to compromise and follow the visions of others. Passive resistance was the company's dominant culture. We'd sit in meetings and smile and nod at the plan of the day, then go back to our offices and swear about how stupid that idea was and how we were damned if we'd every cooperate with it.

Those of us who were managers often failed to insist that our teams work together. Instead of integrating them to cooperate toward a goal, we settled into walled fortresses, protecting our projects and budgets from attack by others. Ideas and initiatives from the outside were rejected as vigorously as your body's immune system rejects a germ.

We told ourselves that our core competency was designing user interfaces, but we were better at designing t-shirts and org charts. In ten years at Apple I worked in basically three roles, but reported into 12 different VPs.

We all wanted to be chefs. Nobody wanted to be a busboy. Our senior managers lacked the wisdom or the will to call off the game. And so our company fell.

Lessons learned

Now I, like a lot of former Apple people, am at a new company, facing many of the same challenges Apple faced in the late 1980s. I think about my Apple experiences a lot, and they guide me in my work -- they tell me what not to do. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

--Because cooperation is essential to success, you have to welcome the ideas of others, search for their good parts, and find ways to build a common agenda.

--Because unity is more important than perfection, you need to support and carry out the decisions of your management, even when you disagree with them.

--Because no one can do it all, it's important to work cooperatively with other parts of your organization, even if you think you could do some things better yourself.

--Because no single company can change the industry, you have to team with other companies to share the opportunities, and help them understand the vision and excitement.

--You must banish the words "moron" and "brain-dead" from business conversations (no matter how applicable they may be).

Sounds pretty basic, but I think it was lack of those basics, more than anything else, that killed Apple.

Will we do things differently this time? Hard to say. But it feels a lot better.

Who knows, maybe we can still change the world.

--Michael Mace

Director of Competitive Analysis

Director of Mac Platform Marketing

Director of Marketing, Home & Education Division

Apple Computer, Inc 1987-1997

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(1) Once upon a time, Apple had two major projects to make a next-generation operating system, called Blue and Pink. Blue was a sort of incremental improve-what-you've-got project; Pink was more of a start over with new foundations type of approach. Apple couldn't decide which one to focus on, so as usual it tried to do both. Blue stayed inside the company, and Pink was spun out into a joint venture with IBM, called Taligent. Taligent burned up a lot of money and people from both firms without yielding anything of lasting significance that I'm aware of.

(2) Another joint venture, designed to do...something. I don't remember anymore.

(3) An early effort to move Apple to RISC-based computing. Absorbed a lot of talented people and then was killed.

(4) An initiative for document-centric computing.

(5) One of the most interesting concepts in Sybil was the treatment of the file system as a database. You could do various sorts on your files, organizing them into "piles" grouped by subject. A document could live in several different piles based on its content. It was a promising way to navigate large quantities of information on a hard drive. Instead we're still stuck with a folder paradigm designed for use on 400k floppy disks. (By the way, I hear the next version of Windows will have a database-style file system.)

P.S. - You can read the responses to Michael's story here -

http://apple.computerhistory.org/stories/

- Jim

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This Page was last update: Thursday, September 18, 2003 at 9:24:00 AM
This page was originally posted: 9/2/2003; 10:02:15 AM.
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