Monday, October 18, 2010

Another Misunderstood Genius

"Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and Steve Jobs, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Well, that's what Ralph would have said..if he had owned an iPod.

The New York Times recently published an article about Apple's potential iPhone market share plunge due to vigorous competition from Android phones. The article suggests that Apple is in for another rude awakening like it had in the mid-90s when they essentially lost the OS war to Microsoft.

I'm a huge fan of The Times, but it surprises me how short-sighted they are when it comes to Apple. For one thing, they're ignoring a key component of that 1990s tumble: the absence of Steve Jobs. Apple pushed out its genius creator in the 80s after an explosion in success and a subsequent power struggle. Following Jobs' ouster, in a McDonald's-like frenzy of product innovation attempts, Apple came out with the predecessor of the of the PDA(the Newton), the first laptop, education-friendly computers, and a host of other stuff. While many of the releases were prescient and interesting, they were prohibitively untimely. Apple ended up losing huge swaths of the market.

Perhaps the most tragic misfire in Jobs' absence was the "clone" program that attempted to increase market share by allowing third parties to manufacture and sell Macintosh desktop computers generically through hardware and software licensure. This feeble effort only served to further dilute the brand. Microsoft, still under the command of a spunky Bill Gates, saw their influence expand exponentially in a flourishing economy, hungry for new computer technology and without much competition from the formerly dominant Apple. It wasn't until 1997 when Apple came to its senses and put Jobs back in the saddle. A year later, Apple introduced the iMac; a wave of bleeding edge innovation has followed.

It is true that Android phones are gaining a lot of ground in the smartphone market. The problem with the concerns expressed in the article is that it doesn't really matter. They assume that Apple's primary goal is to dominate a market or sell a lot of phones. Of course, as a corporation, they have a responsibility to investors...and their investors have become very happy. But what makes Steve Jobs get up in the morning? Higher EPS? A million more iPhones sold? A new contract with Verizon? I don't think so:
"Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful...that's what matters to me."
I maintain that Apple, or any similarly forward-looking company, doesn't have much to fear from Android or Microsoft or HP or many other technology companies. Those guys are all playing on Apple's field; Apple sets the trends..the temperature..and the rest wait around to see who can emulate the fastest. Other companies have just now 'arrived' on the smartphone scene. Apple isn't really in the smartphone market. Or the computer market. Or the mp3 player market. They're in the life-change market.

As arrogant as it may be, Steve Jobs believes that he can change the world. He believes that he already has. And he's right. He doesn't have to worry about competing in the world of personal technology; he invented that world.

People pay entrance fees and wait in stuffy convention centers just to hear about the next Apple product. Writers speculate and entrepreneurs drool. Like Slugworth in Wonka's factory, they connive and scheme just to get a glimpse. Is it just to find out what the next gadget will be? No, it's because they know when Steve Jobs takes the stage, the future will unfold a little bit more.

1 comment:

  1. True indeed.

    Since becoming a Mac person, I have been infested with a certain fear that "This can't go on." I sort of have this nervous hesitancy about when the well of genius will run dry and we will be left in the dark again, forced back into the drudgery of dealing with people who innovate because it can be monetized, not because something that should exist is burning in the back of their brains.

    Anymore, I don't worry about that so much, and less so when I hear it from columnists and other silly people who are driven to write by a deadline, rather than an inner spark of clarity. After all, it is a cheap bet to leave on the table if you are the first one to proclaim the demise of tech greatness. If you are right, you are clairvoyant. If not, no one will bother noticing, engrossed as they will be in Tweeting about the next shiny advancement to come out or Cupertino or Redmond.

    Well said, in either case. It appears your blogging hiatus has served you well.