Larry Ellison says Apple can’t succeed without Steve Jobs. He’s wrong.

August 14, 2013

The late Steve Jobs. (Paul Sakuma / AP)

In an interview with Charlie Rose on the future of Apple, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison explains why he thinks the company Steve Jobs built has slipped into a period of long-term decline:

LARRY ELLISON: He was -- he was brilliant. I mean, our Edison. He was our Picasso. He was an incredible inventor.

CHARLIE ROSE: So what happens to Apple without Steve?

LARRY ELLISON: Well, we already know.

CHARLIE ROSE: What?

LARRY ELLISON: We saw -- we conducted the experiment. I mean, it's been done. We saw Apple with Steve Jobs. We saw Apple without Steve Jobs. We saw Apple with Steve Jobs. Now, we're gonna see Apple without Steve Jobs.

Ellison gives voice to a consensus that Jobs and Apple were synonymous, if not symbiotic. History, according to Ellison, appears to bear that out. When Jobs was fired by then-CEO John Sculley, his departure sent Apple into a funk that only Jobs' return could fix. Sculley himself admits in hindsight that forcing Jobs out was a terrible business call. Maybe if their roles were reversed and just a little clearer, Sculley told The Daily Beast in 2010, the two men might not have clashed as much as they did — and the dark time in Apple's past might never have happened.

Ellison's explanation for Apple's success — as a function of one man's presence — puts a lot of responsibility on Jobs' shoulders without really recognizing the people and circumstances around him. It's as though the Jobs of our collective imagination exists in a vacuum — the genius and the darkness that made him famous, his accumulated business wisdom, all frozen perpetually at age 56. But eccentric though he was, Jobs isn't like some independent variable we can plop into a science experiment. The Steve Jobs of the 1970s was a different person from the Steve Jobs of the 1980s and 1990s. Apple, too, was a different company at each of those points.

Sculley was brought on to run the company in part because Jobs recognized early on that he wasn't ready to do the job himself.

"What they needed was a consumer marketer who knew advertising and had the corporate polish that would play well on Wall Street," wrote Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs.

Jobs would later become that man, and he would eventually fill the role so well that the world couldn't imagine anyone but him in it. But in 1983, Jobs wasn't yet that man.

He came a bit closer after he left Apple and founded NeXT. There, he enjoyed complete authority over his work — the closest to Jobs-in-a-vacuum you could get. At that point you could probably have bottled him up and slapped a label on it that read "Pure Jobs." Even then, however, circumstances beyond his control forced NeXT into a corner.

The problem was that the NeXT platform required specially designed software — nothing else would run on it. And as it turned out, nobody felt like writing those programs, not even Bill Gates, whom Jobs had previously convinced to produce software for the early Macintosh. Despite having complete control over his own product, nothing Jobs did could prevent NeXT from flopping. When the NeXT computer launched, sales were at 4 percent of factory capacity. A year later in 1990, according to Isaacson, NeXT's revenues amounted to $28 million. Its competitor, Sun Microsystems, made $2.5 billion that year.

None of this was really Jobs' fault — his vertically integrated design philosophy hadn't caught on yet. But that's precisely the point: Just adding a dash of Jobs, even Pure Jobs, wasn't enough to guarantee success. Gates and the others had a big role to play in determining NeXT's fate.

But then Jobs showed that he could evolve over time. After years of battling Microsoft for marketshare, Jobs — now reinstalled at Apple — called Gates to discuss a peace treaty. At the Macworld conference in 1997, Jobs asked Apple fans to lay down their arms.

"We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose," he said.

The result of that reconciliation was a new version of Microsoft Excel and Word for Mac, and the beginning of the Macintosh's climb out of a lonely software silo. (These days, compatability with Mac OS X is pretty much a given with most software.)


(jemsweb/Flickr)

Until that point, the Mac — and Apple, more broadly — had been struggling. Ellison would explain this by virtue of Jobs' absence. But Apple faltered not just because of a lack of leadership but because the leadership it did have in its lost decade stunk. Sculley's successor, Gil Amelio, bumbled his way through shareholder meetings and product launches — to the point where Ellison himself would later tell Isaacson, "Anyone who spent more than a half hour with Amelio would realize that he couldn't do anything but self-destruct." To say that Apple failed because Jobs wasn't around is to let off too easily those who actually were there.

At the risk of deploying too many metaphors, it's tempting to think of Jobs as a square peg, and Apple as a perfectly square hole, and that they were always made for each other, forever and ever amen. But maybe the truth is that both the peg and the hole have been constantly changing shapes, and it so happens that what we witnessed in Apple's success under Jobs was simply the result of the peg and the hole adopting the same shape for a brief time.

If that's true, it still leaves the question as to what Apple faces now, and whether Jobs would be any good at solving it. Jobs' mission in the 1970s was to figure out how a business worked. He was pretty good at that. His mission in the 1980s was to run the team designing the Macintosh. He had great ideas, but alienated a lot of people, and importantly, his time in that role overlapped with disappointing sales of his own product. (It was meeting 10 percent of its budget expectations in March 1985, according to Isaacson.) Jobs' mission in the late 1990s was to turn Apple around, and in the 2000s, he did. If he were still alive today, Jobs' mission would be to keep Apple from growing stale and complacent.

As someone who always seemed to be hunting for the Next Big Thing, Jobs probably would have been well-suited to that task. But that's very different from saying that Apple cannot survive without him. There are a lot of smart people at Apple, just as there were a lot of "A-players" working under Jobs in the early days. It would be unfair to them to say they didn't matter.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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