John Sculley, Moore’s law, and the legacy of Steve Jobs

John Sculley, whose tenure at Apple was associated with a rather unhappy period when Apple’s computers looked like everybody else’s, has been talking about his experiences.  It makes for a striking contrast with the popular narrative, which pits Steve Jobs the radical thinker against Sculley the traditional corporate operator,  Perhaps most significant is the reference in the article to Moore’s law – to the effect that computing power gets cheaper and cheaper all the time.  It’s important in the Apple context because one of the key things that Apple has achieved over the years has been to recognise when, given the effect of Moore’s law, it’s right to innovate.  Apple introduced the first Macintosh when Moore’s law made it feasible to use computing power to drive easy-to-use, graphical interfaces, and introduced the iPod when it became possible to store significant quantities of music in computer memory on one device.  So you could argue that spotting the right time for innovation, and noticing what’s made possible, is actually one of the drivers for something else that Apple has done well: the ability to move almost seamlessly from a computer company to a music device company to a phone company, but to keep some sort of common thread within the business.

So much has been written, in the months since the death of Steve Jobs, about the sort of business that he constructed, that I have little to add.  But recognition of Moore’s law and of the opportunities made possible by cheapening technology is one strand in the common thread.  Another is the importance of design (the point that Apple products don’t look like everybody else’s. and also the reason that Jonathan Ive, as designer, has such an important role in the business).  Yet another is the ability to balance innovation – the creation of radically new products – with adaptation and the continuing improvement of existing products. 

For all his commitment to changing the way that people live and work, Steve Jobs does appear to have been a fairly ruthless corporate operator, focused on the success of his own business, and part of this stemmed from adopting ideas which had originated with other people.  Famously, the graphical interface of the first Macintosh computers, and the Lisa before it, came from work done by Doug Englebart and others many years earlier.  Nevertheless Apple deserves credit for identifying when this technology was ready for exploitation, and that’s an ability that shouldn’t be underestimated

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