Has Apple Made Another Hiring Mistake?

News came out that Apple has hired Kevin Lynch, most recently the CTO for Adobe, as Vice President of Technology. The rumblings on the Interwebs are resulting in questions, the biggest being: is this a good idea? Given Apple’s recent track record on senior hires (admittedly, a single sample), the questions could be valid. But there may be method in the madness.

The Tale Of John Browett

Apple hired John Browett in 2012 to take over their retail operations when the previous head, Ron Johnson, left to run JC Penney. Browett did not work out (some could argue it was a bit of a disaster, or at least a fiasco), and Browett admitted he wasn’t a fit at Apple. His previous turn was at Dixon’s, a UK electronics chain with a less-than-stellar reputation. Some could say that Dixon’s is the anti-Apple Store in terms of customer experience. But Apple executives either missed this little tidbit of information, or chose to ignore it. What Browett did was bolster Dixon’s bottom line, and had zero reputation for building a quality retail experience. The results for Apple were predictable, and Apple now has to work to find a good replacement, as well as fix the damage that was done.

Is Kevin Lynch, who most recently sparred with Apple over Flash support on iOS, another John Browett in the making? There are some that believe this hiring is a mistake. John Gruber at Daring Fireball calls him a bozo. The Financial Post remains somewhat neutral on the decision, as does Apple Insider. As the latter two sites point out, Lynch was more than just Flash. He was instrumental in several core pieces of software that kept the Mac relevant. Damning the man for a single thing could be viewed as a bit of a stretch, and there may have been bigger political issues inside Adobe that forced him to be an advocate for Flash. We don’t really know what he thought about it personally.

The Benefit Of Outside Voices

Stepping back a bit, there is a benefit to Apple in bringing on an outsider. In any organization, a culture develops, and it becomes easy to get caught up in your own noise and forget the world outside. When your culture is somewhat insular, like Apple, and where your organization tends to “do” rather than “listen”, the barriers that hold out the exterior voices can become considerable. Apple does actually listen to their customers, primarily through the feedback and responses through their retail stores, but when it comes to designing new product, Apple is famous for ignoring the traditional “test it with focus groups” first (and for good reason).

Kevin Lynch brings the experience of leading a 3rd-party Apple developer, and what it is like to deal with Apple, inside the company’s walls. It won’t be easy for him. As an outsider, I expect his ideas and opinions will be discounted by some for a while. But enough might listen, and learn some lessons to be applied to the company. Apple may find, particularly if they decide to enter the enterprise space with more vigour, that their traditionally-closed approach to things will have to be opened up a bit. Bringing in someone who worked outside those walls may help Apple achieve a greater degree of openness than they are used to.

Can His Flash Stance Be Ignored?

The stance that Lynch took on mobile support for Flash certainly can’t be ignored, and any review of his work has to be tempered by it. Flash may be a success for Adobe, but it has been a bit of a disaster for the rest of us. Buggy, crash-prone and a security nightmare, it could be argued that Flash, even in desktop/laptop form, has done more harm than good. Yes, it has been the backbone for gaming on social sites, and provided the first real way to display video in a browser. But there are better, more stable, more secure and more scalable technologies available now.

But let’s keep in mind that Lynch had to support Flash. It was an important part of the Adobe suite of products, and his job was to promote it. But some may ask, if he didn’t agree with it, shouldn’t he have quit? I counter that with a question back: why? If he didn’t agree with it personally, but still promoted it anyways, then perhaps he was being pragmatic. We’re not talking about some major issue that addresses important things in society. We’re talking about a stupid piece of software, not eugenics. And he did eventually wise up, since Flash for mobile is now dead, and dead by Adobe’s hands, not just the mobile platform makers.

And again, this has to be tempered with the fact that Flash wasn’t his only responsibility, and he made possible other important products that kept the Mac relevant. Sure, he can be faulted for supporting Flash in the face of overwhelming evidence no one wanted it. But I’m not sure he should be damned for it, as if he hadn’t done other good things as well.

Apple Has To Change

Apple is going to evolve as a company. It isn’t the same company that Steve and Steve started back in 1976, it isn’t the same company that brought us the Macintosh in 1984 and it isn’t the same Apple that Steve Jobs took over (again) in 1997. It’s nice to believe the fiction that some things don’t change, but the reality is that Apple has changed, and will continue to change. To survive and thrive during these changes, Apple needs to bring in fresh perspective and fresh opinions, even ones that sometimes contradict their assumptions and beliefs. As a result, some of these changes will upset the faithful. And yes, sometimes there will be mistakes. Not every decision will be perfect or correct.

If a company doesn’t evolve and adapt, it risks death. IBM ran into this in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when they focused on the mainframe at a time when the server-side was changing. It took an outsider, and the potential of bankruptcy, to force the company to make major changes. Sun Microsystems is basically gone because they didn’t adapt quickly enough, or adapt properly. HP is, to some degree, dealing with this now.

It is better to change yourself, than to have change forced upon you. Just ask RIM and Nokia how much they like their new, and largely irrelevant, position in the mobile device space. While there are certainly valid questions about Kevin Lynch, he at least deserves a chance to either fail or succeed. Given how rapidly Browett was walked out the door (he was only at Apple for 7 months), I suspect that Kevin Lynch will have an equally short tenure if things go pear-shaped. There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake, as long as you correct it fast enough. But if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying. I’d rather see Apple trying, and screwing up on occasion, than coasting and hoping for the best.