Manufactured Support

What I think is funny in this market is that most people can look at two companies, see the difference in their performance, and not learn the fundamental lesson — even though it has been repeated over the decades.

Microsoft and Apple are cases in point, because Apple was very successful under the initial founders, then was unsuccessful after the founders left, was successful again when Jobs came back, and now is struggling without him. Microsoft was very successful under Gates, struggled when Gates left, and is successful again now that it is run by someone very much like Gates.

The core magic is this: having someone who is running the company who both understands the technology and understands either the customer’s current needs — or how to manipulate customers to need what you make.

I’ll focus on that this time and close with my product of the week, which has to be the amazing Microsoft Surface Studio, which is arguably what Apple should have shipped.

Steve Jobs Was Unique

I get why Apple struggled to find a replacement for Steve Jobs — not only after he died, but also earlier, after he initially was fired. The guy was unique. After reading a number of books on his life and on his presentation and product secrets, it became clear to me that what made him different was that he both understood technology well enough to direct his firm and understood people well enough to convince us that what we wanted was what he built.

He was absolutely correct in believing that it was stupid to use focus groups as a planning exercise. He understood that people don’t know what they want, and that the successful company is the one that can manipulate them into wanting what it builds.

He became CEO of the decade and built the most financially successful firm in the current age — yet there isn’t another firm in the market that even comes close to emulating his model.

Now the reason we don’t see this model emulated is that if Steve Jobs were to apply for a job at any tech company today with the resume he had at Apple’s beginning, he would not be hired. I think you could say the same of Bill Gates, which really points to what I think is a fundamental problem with the current hiring process.

People who might rise to run a firm like Jobs ran Apple and Gates ran Microsoft can get to the CEO position only if they form their own firms, and right now getting VC money without a degree would be nearly as impossible as getting hired would be.

What I don’t get is why firms don’t have a process specifically designed to bring in passionate creative types who have high IQs but who didn’t do well in schools — or why schools that specialize in creating CEO types, like Harvard, don’t find a better way to find and certify them.

From Jobs vs. Ballmer to Nadella vs. Cook

What also is fascinating is that after Apple’s board saw how Jobs stepped all over Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, it went ahead and replaced Jobs with someone more like Ballmer.

Cook and Ballmer are both good managers. They’re great with numbers, they’re hard workers, and they both love their firms. However, neither has a creative bone in their bodies. They aren’t even remotely charismatic, and the only customers they readily identify with are corporate customers, which is particularly problematic for Apple, which doesn’t really serve that customer base.

In effect, Nadella is very similar to Gates, and Cook is very similar to Ballmer — granted, without the famous temper — and the end result is that Apple has dropped into decline and Microsoft is surging again, albeit with Azure and Web services, which luckily is where the excitement is.

Warring Announcements

It was fascinating to watch the Microsoft and Apple hardware launches last week. The Microsoft launch was focused tightly on creators, Apple’s historic core base, while the Apple launch didn’t seem to focus on users at all. Apple presented a collection of features that don’t seem to be sourced in any clear customer need.

For instance, I’ve never seen customers ask for a flexible secondary touch screen, particularly when the product lacks a primary touch screen. Also ironic is the fact that folks leaving the Microsoft event lusted after both the new Surface Book and, particularly, the Surface Studio, while those at the Apple event seemed disappointed they’d have to settle.