What Steve Jobs Wouldn’t Have Done

Between a feature-by-feature review (members only) and an analysis of strategic underpinnings, I’ve written nearly three thousand words about Apple’s WWDC announcements. Still, though, it feels like I haven’t written about what is perhaps the most important takeaway.

It’s a takeaway I’ve resisted, even as writer after blogger after Twitterer has said the same thing: Apple is different, things have changed, they are opening up. My instinctual reaction has been to assume that it is all hyperbole, that nothing has changed, everything is expected. And yet, I have to admit the conclusion from Josh Topolsky’s piece Meet the New Apple rings true:

But the big story — and the big picture — is that Apple seems to have come out of deep freeze. It feels light, like it’s moving forward. Like the cobwebs have brushed aside, and things are going to get fun again. Everything we saw at WWDC’s keynote points to a very interesting next few months for Apple — a period that will undoubtedly come into deep focus around the fall, when the company tends to roll out its major hardware updates. But unlike previous events, which have felt painfully predictable and iterative in the past couple of years, the next move Apple makes should be surprising. If the software and platform work that we saw at the keynote on Monday is any indication, the kind of apps and hardware that follow it aren’t just going to be business as usual.

Indeed, there was an undeniable lightness and confidence in both the content and the style of Apple’s presentation. What’s more interesting is to consider why. Topolsky chalks it up to a post-Steve Jobs hangover:

In recent years — and let’s be honest, probably since just after Steve Jobs’ death in 2011 — there has been a sense of hesitation, of standoffishness, and maybe even a little bit of fear in the tone of Apple events. That tone has carried over to the company’s approach to the outside world, and has left a lot of people wondering just whether there’s been a plan at all. You could feel a palpable sense of Apple being closed off, in a huddle, trying to figure out what kind of company it wants to be (and can be) in a post-Jobs world. Because whether you agreed with his style, decisions, or philosophies, it’s impossible to deny that Jobs was the voice of Apple and the holder of the keys to the company roadmap.

I don’t think this is quite right. Topolsky is right about the fear, but wrong about the timing. What is critical to understand about Steve Jobs’ Apple was how much it was rooted in fear. Not fear of Jobs, but rather, the abject terror of the company ever finding itself in a similar situation to the one Jobs stepped into in 1997. A company bankrupt technically, and on the verge of being bankrupt financially, deserted by the partner it had made into a powerhouse (Adobe), and forced to accept a loan from its oldest and most bitter rival Microsoft. Jobs, and all of those closest to him, swore never again.

And so, Apple hoarded cash like a depression-era grandma; every new Apple product was locked down to the fullest extent possible, with limitations removed grudgingly at best. This absolutely extended to developers: not only were apps originally banned from the iPhone, and later on subject to seemingly arbitrary limitations and restrictions, but even today it’s unclear if non-game apps can be the foundation of sustainable businesses because of Apple’s restrictions.

Last year, in an interview with Eric Jackson at Forbes I detailed my long-term worry for Apple:

The values Jobs insisted Apple embody – quality, simplicity, the “feel” of something – are actually not that difficult to understand. There is no magic formula, just the incredibly difficult work of making choices and executing in a way that ensures those values come through in the products…

In other words, I think Apple is fine. My long-term worry is about what happens when all of the old guard leave, and those in charge have only ever known success. But that’s still a ways off.

In fact, it wasn’t a ways off at all. Just compare the executive pages from 2010 and 2014 – nearly 60% of the 2010 team is gone.

Apple's executive team in 2010 versus 2014

Jobs, of course, is the biggest absence, but also gone is his protégé Scott Forstall. Both were ardent proponents of uncompromising Apple control, and, I think it’s safe to say, both would have been concerned with both the tenor and content of this week’s announcements. It was Forstall, remember, who dominated the most depressing post-Jobs keynote at WWDC 2012 (when iOS 6 was announced). That keynote is memorable largely for the introduction of Apple Maps, the moment when Apple’s insistence on control crossed the line from justifiable caution to injuriousness to the end-user experience.

Interestingly, Craig Federighi, whose enthusiastic joviality is a stark contrast from Forstall’s certitude, was also at Apple in 1997, having been a part of the NeXT acquisition. Crucially, though, he left in 1999 for eight years, meaning he witnessed the first part of Apple’s incredible run from afar. And perhaps that perspective helped him to move on in a way Forstall and others in the old guard could not. Again, by “moving-on” I don’t mean moving-on from Jobs’ death, but rather moving-on from the darkest parts of Apple’s past. Apple is not about to go bankrupt, they hold the power in every partnership they enter, developers around the world desperately want to work with them. It is not 1997, and to make decisions with a 1997 mindset simply doesn’t make sense.

In short, perhaps my fears for Apple’s future were precisely backwards: Apple didn’t need to always remember 1997; in fact, they needed to forget. And so they have.