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Former Apple CEO Sculley: Apple’s still got it

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In the wake of Apple reporting record quarterly earnings thanks in part to the high price tag of the iPhone X, former Apple CEO John Sculley told BGR in an interview he remains bullish on the iconic tech giant.

He doesn’t, of course, have a dog in that fight anymore, since the 78-year-old executive spends his time these days mentoring, investing, and helping entrepreneurs and companies make connections. It’s been a few decades since he left the corner office in Cupertino, and he and Steve Jobs never made amends with each other after their nasty and highly publicized falling out.

And yet Sculley — who gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and still works seven days a week — remains something just shy of an Apple fanboy. His take on the company today: As long as Apple — which beat Wall Street’s revenue and earnings expectations when it released its latest quarterly results last week — is giving customers “the best experience,” irrespective of whatever its Next Big Thing is, the company will keep its edge.

“The way I think about Apple — it never had to be the first with cool technology,” said Sculley, who was hired away from Pepsi by Steve Jobs to apply his marketing chops to the computer industry. The two, of course, famously clashed, to the point that Jobs was eventually forced out of the company.

Sculley himself was forced out of Apple in the 90s. Today, he’s the co-founder and vice chairman of Zeta Global, a data-driven marketing technology company. And amid his other endeavors, not surprisingly, he still pays attention to his old employer. Giving it praise, at a time when the headlines have become more frequent in the tech press questioning whether Apple is losing its touch, poking at the seeming frequency of bugs and spotlighting the leaps that companies like Google and Microsoft are making past Apple in areas like artificial intelligence.

“What Apple has focused on for decades — and it’s why Steve Jobs had originally recruited me to Apple, because we’d developed something at Pepsi with the Pepsi Challenge that I called experience marketing,” Sculley tells BGR. “And Steve said, ‘Hey — you gotta teach me how to do that! I’m coming out with this incredible experience product for non-technical people to do amazing, creative things, and I’m going to call it the Macintosh. You’ve got to show me how we market it.’

“And so Apple became the pioneer of experience marketing. That’s the way I view Apple. Apple may not be the first to come out with the best AI. You can argue there are others who are further ahead than Apple. But on the other hand, Apple continues to make the best products that most people want, and they’re willing to pay premium prices for them and they love the experience. The way to judge Apple is not are they leaping into a new industry like automobiles, but are they going to be able to keep their edge with the best experiences? So far, the answer is yes.”

The numbers would seem to bear that out. Apple posted $88.3 billion in revenue for the recent holiday quarter, according to its latest earnings numbers.

Meanwhile, about Sculley’s last point — a focus on maintaining “their edge.” That focus is what drives his work today as one of the elder statesmen of tech.

His Zeta Global has about 1,400 employees and offices around the world. He’s also been vocal and spoken often about the profound shift in computing that AI represents.

“Well, AI is the new OS. and I’m not the first person to say that,” Sculley says. “From my experience, when I joined Silicon Valley back in the early 1980s and for the next several decades since, computers always had software coders that would write the instructions of what the computer was going to be able to do. Now we’ve seen a complete reconceptualization of the computer industry. Now it’s all about platforms.

“The platforms are extremely data-centric, and the data is on such a massive scale that the only way you can manage that data in a distinctly different and powerful way is to bring in machine learning and eventually deep learning. Machine learning at the simplest level is really computational statistics. It’s all built around Bayesian statistical probability theory. And it represents a fundamental, foundational change in the information technology industry.”

Apple isn’t generally talked about in the top tier of companies on the cutting edge of AI, but even more than that – Sculley also notes that the world is increasingly moving away from our digital lives being tethered to shiny, expensive devices.

Say what you will about that Apple ad that’s been dividing opinion — the one where the young girl asks “What’s a computer?” — but Sculley refers to it to make his point for him.

“If there’s one operative word, it’s platforms — it’s all about platforms,” Sculley says. “Steve Jobs used to say he never started with the technology, he always started with the customer. So let’s start with the customer and say what’s the most profound business architectural change we can make that can fundamentally change every industry in the world? And there’s one word. Platforms.

“Once you have that, then you can incorporate machine learning and artificial intelligence and all of these other things. Increasingly, the cool, shiny object way of thinking about technology becomes not that interesting anymore.”

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Andy Meek is a reporter who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.