Back when veteran Apple reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane first started unleashing tirades against Apple’s current management this year, I found myself very unpersuaded by her arguments. And that’s not because I think Apple is beyond criticism, mind you, but more because she seemed to have bought into the “Great Man” fallacy that states Apple’s entire success stems from the vision and drive of its late cofounder Steve Jobs.
Barron’s brings us word that Kane has been at it again at SXSW this week, as during a panel discussion on her upcoming book about Apple she said multiple times that assorted Apple screw-ups wouldn’t have happened if Jobs were still around. To cite one example, Kane said that there’s no way that Jobs would have let Apple release Apple Maps to the public back in the fall of 2012 because someone would have told him about how bad it was instead of hiding it from him.
“It was really interesting, because to get something so wrong, you gotta wonder where the breakdown occurred,” she explained. “I don’t know, but the questions I’m asking, did the mobile software head, Scott Forestall, did his people not tell him? There was breakdown somewhere. My sense is they would have been more scared of Steve to not tell him, than to tell him.”
Of course there were plenty of major breakdowns during Jobs’ reign as Apple CEO. MobileMe famously bombed, the iPhone 4’s antenna was a public relations debacle and the Power Mac G4 Cube was a total dud for all but the most devoted Apple fans. What’s more Kane’s insistence that Apple can’t produce disruptive products anymore overlooks just how often Apple really did disrupt the markets — as Barron’s points out, there was a big six-year gap between the time Apple released the iPod and the iPhone.
More importantly, though, I think Kane and her Jobs Nostalgia Goggles also get something wrong about what made Jobs a great CEO in the first place and also about what makes great companies succeed.
Based on everything I’ve read from people who worked with Jobs, it seems that one of his best traits was his ability to identify talented people and then push those people to produce the best work they were capable of producing. So while Jobs certainly had the vision for what the Apple II should have been, he’d never have been able to achieve that vision without the engineering genius of Steve Wozniak. Similarly, Apple’s incredible supply chain prowess wouldn’t be what it is today if Jobs hadn’t recognized that he needed someone with the brains of Tim Cook to make it happen. The same goes for Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, Scott Forstall and countless other current and former Apple executives who have played major roles in its success.
And here’s the thing: These people were all able to work with someone as difficult and demanding as Steve Jobs for many years because they were also very demanding of themselves. When Jobs died in 2011, they didn’t lose their desire to be the best in their field and to make great products. Jony Ive didn’t kick up his feet after Jobs’ passing and say, “Welp, that’s over! Time to start churning out cheap crap and milk this puppy while I still can!” Indeed, stories that we’ve heard from former Apple employees who have recently quit the company suggest that the atmosphere within Cupertino is just as demanding as it’s always been.
So this is why I have a real hard time buying into Kane’s belief that Apple is “doomed” because Steve Jobs isn’t there to push people around anymore. Unlike when he was forced out of Apple in the 1980s, Jobs left behind a much deeper bench of talent when he passed away in 2011. To suggest that the company will stop being great just because “Big Brother” is no longer watching over them really undersells what they’ve been able to accomplish together. Apple wasn’t built in a day and it wasn’t built by just one person.