As an Apple user, and a chronic puzzler over the exotic folkways of corporate business, I can't help wondering if there's a parable for our times in the big split-up at Apple Computer.
It is certainly one of the more spectacular California shoot-outs since the Hollywood horse opera entered its decline. Steven Jobs, one of the founding geniuses of Apple, and the manager Jobs hired two years ago to run his company, have gone separate ways. But it was Jobs, not his hired manager, who left the premises.
Jobs as a teen-age college dropout joined with his friend, Stephen Wozniak, to design Apple's first computer in his father's garage. At 30, he is already a figure of high-tech legend.
Two years ago, with Apple beset by growing pains and marketing problems, Jobs and the Apple board (of which he was chairman until a week or so ago) hired John Sculley, a "marketing" ace from Pepsi Cola.
At first Jobs and Sculley got along well. Last year, however, the personal-computer market slumped, and strain set in. It turned out that not quite every U.S. household would buy a personal computer to go with the telephone, the refrigerator and the washing machine.
Apart from harmonious managerial relations at Apple, the market slump produced other casualties, including the celebrated IBM "peanut." Peanut was a much-heralded personal computer that failed to ignite mass demand and has now been discontinued. One of the problems, apparently, was the Chiclet- shaped keys, which felt odd to the touch, a design error any neurotic writer could have warned IBM about.
Sculley, with the backing of the Apple board, proceeded to shunt the company's founding genius aside. Then he and the board exiled Jobs to a remote office across the street, isolated from the flow of daily business. Jobs and his secretary, reduced to shuffling through the mail, called it "Siberia." Now Jobs has left Apple to form a new company, taking five associates along.
The story one reads is that Jobs, who is not managerial by temperament, was not good at "operations." Indeed, the exact nature of Jobs' contribution to the early success of the company, while essential, is like most touches of genius: elusive. A big part of it was his charismatic power to galvanize the creativity of others. Jobs' philosophy, he has explained to Newsweek, is a bit romantic: "Everything begins with a great product."
It would be too simple by half to view the Sculley- Jobs split as a parable, but it certainly is tempting to try.
There was a time, at least in the folklore of American business, when the fabled successes -- the Apple stories of the past -- reflected personal creativity and genius with staying power. Even those who were in some respects certifiable cranks -- Henry Ford, for instance -- managed to stick around the companies that grew up around their genius.
Increasingly, or so it seems to an unbusinesslike outsider, modern enterprises lose touch with their sometimes cranky creators. They soon immerse themselves in managerial complications, so that it is hard to see the product for the packaging. Business, like the government it sometimes scorns, has become bureaucratic.
The Steven Jobs creed that "everything starts with a great product" probably sounded less romantic in an earlier age than even Jobs finds it now. It would have seemed too obvious to bother saying. Certainly the fact still stands, assailed but unshaken by business-school witchcraft and incantation.
But some businesses seem to really believe that with sufficient ballyhoo people can be sold an inferior product they neither need nor want. Heralded by ads, warranties, guarantees, rebates, testimonials, etc., modern products come with a formidable, sometimes impenetrable and often deceptive bodyguard of packaging.
Apple's early success rested, like Ford's and Edison's, on a brilliant idea and a product worthy of it. The idea was that everyone might find a computer affordable, amusing and maybe even useful -- though the last was secondary. Sculley himself has said, with only slight exaggeration, that "computers were big, boring blue boxes until Steve Jobs came along."
What Apple without Jobs will be like can hardly be guessed. But his departure suggests again how hard it is for modern business to harness creativity and romance with the prosaic demands of marketing. Perhaps the outcome will give us a clue, at least, to which matters more.