Will Apple See It’s 80th Birthday?

Today, Apple turns 40. On April 1, 1976, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniack and Mike Markkula founded Apple. They started with what was basically a hobby machine, and they have grown to one of the largest companies by valuation in the world. There were bumps along the way, but Apple has had periods in history where it wasn’t just “relevant”, it was the leader. But will Apple, with its strengths and flaws, see another 40 years?

“Evil” Apple? “Unimaginative” Apple?

A lot of people who don’t like Apple tend to focus on what they’ve done, and completely overlook how they did it or the impact they had. Did Apple invent the GUI? No, they did not. They didn’t even sell the first GUI-based computer, Xerox did. But unlike the Star, the Macintosh changed the computing landscape in 1984 in ways that were just as disruptive as the IBM PC was 3 years earlier. Let’s face it, in 3 years, IBM took the “home” and “personal” computer, legitimized it as a business tool, and it became the status quo for desktop computing. The famous 1984 SuperBowl ad was mocking a machine as “mainstream”, and that machine was all of 3 years old. Apple (and others) benefited by IBM’s presence, but Apple also changed the conversation about what a PC could be.

Even during the dark days of the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, Apple had the occasional glimmer. While the ThinkPad was the gold standard for corporate laptops, the PowerBook gave us a GUI-based laptop computer with design style. The Newton had a lot of shortcomings, but ambition and the potential for mobile computing weren’t among them. It showed us a vision of what might be, even if that future was still many years away.

Apple may occasionally invent, but generally speaking, they innovate like most other companies. They have some of their own ideas and technologies, see other technologies out there, and find a way to put them together in a way that is sometimes compelling or useful. Occasionally the result is game-changing, and defies convention. More often, it’s an evolution or improvement on what we already know and understand. But Apple has been a little different from everyone else, and has managed to succeed in the past 20 years as a result. Of course, detractors abound, few of whom have ever seen their predictions of doom come true.

Consider the prognostications: the Macintosh will be irrelevant (it’s the only PC platform that has seen sales increases for the past 3-4 years now, and it continues to gain PC marketshare). The iPod is too expensive (it owned 85% of the MP3 player market before the market collapsed in the wake of smartphones). The iPhone is a toy (it was instrumental in creating the consumer smartphone market along with Android, legitimized the concept of a centralized App Store, and was the design leader in smartphones that everyone seemed bent on copying). The iPad won’t matter (it created the current tablet market, albeit one that is now somewhat moribund. It’s still early days in some ways, so let’s wait and see).

Apple created a PC that real people could use, and that was the blueprint for Windows. They created a media player and supporting on-line store that set the standard for portable media. They made a smartphone that became the standard all other smartphones are judged by. They created what is essentially a new computing platform, tablets, that forced others to come up with an answer. Yup, pretty unimaginative.

The Why of Apple

After Steve first left in 1985, Apple lost their way. How come? Because they forgot about their “why”. Simon Sinek’s TED Talk captures this concept nicely. Apple’s “why” (we believe computers should be easy to use and nicely designed) got lost because the leaders that took over were too busy worrying about what their competitors were doing. The PC succeeded because it could be cloned? Let’s allow Macintosh clones. The PC succeeded because it was a modular box? Let’s make a modular box.

The Newton and the PowerBook were the 2 times in the era “between Steve’s” that Apple actually tried to lead. One was a hit, the other flopped. The PowerBook, though, would eventually suffer from “let’s look like all the other laptops” syndrome, and became an uninspiring black plastic brick. Apple flailed about with the Newton, unsure what to do with a device that couldn’t deliver on the promises it was showing.

When Steve returned in 1997, part of what he did was refocus Apple on their “why”. He asked hard questions about design and usability. Much of Apple leadership had lost the plot, and as a result lost their way. It took the return of Steve Jobs to right the ship and get it back on course. Apple might be wandering a bit from their “why” again, but that can happen at the best of times. Whether it gets lost completely has yet to be seen.

What About The Next 40 Years?

Is it likely Apple will be here 40 years from now? It is certainly possible. Being (from time to time) the most valuable company in the world can imply some degree of longevity. But then, who would have expected us to live in an industry without a DEC or Sun? IBM had to hire an outsider CEO to survive, and they never, ever hired outsiders in the 80+ years they existed before that (they also never laid people off before that either). GM went bankrupt, a company that was part of the phrase “what’s good for GM is good for America”, the company that made half of all cars sold at one point in the 1960’s. Being “big” is no guarantee of long-term success.

If Apple is here 40 years from now, it will be a very different Apple than we know now. Apple has seen 5 different phases or stages. It started with the Apple I/][ era, moved into the early Lisa/Macintosh era, became an Apple Without Steve Jobs in phase 3, an Apple With Steve Back in stage 4 and a Post-Steve Apple in its current form. How long this stage lasts, and what follows, is up for debate. It could carry on for another decade or so, with an evolution of current product and the odd tidbit to liven things up. It could languish and contract. They may find a Steve Jobs Version 3 to bring a bold new vision to the company.

It is possible Apple won’t be here, or in a form we care about, 40 years from now. IBM was once a huge influence in the PC market. IBM making a PC allowed the market to grow (and grow very quickly) to the behemoth it is today. And IBM doesn’t make PCs anymore (they also don’t make typewriters, and they did make the gold standard Selectric at one point). If Apple is going to be here 4 decades from now, they will have to change and adapt. That takes a degree of courage and vision. IBM deciding to end typewriter production in 1991 (selling it off to Lexmark) caused a stir. Selling their PC business to Lenovo in 2004 was a bombshell. At some point, Apple may not make a Macintosh anymore. The iPhone, iPad and other products may be replaced with other, different devices. It is possible Apple doesn’t make personal computing devices at all. Who knows?

I can’t say if Apple will be here 4 decades from now. Companies some thought would be around forever are long gone. American Motors. McDonnell Douglas. Motorola. DEC. 3COM. Lehman Brothers. Sun Microsystems. Big companies with billion dollar plus revenues and decades of history gone, subsumed by bigger companies in one manner or another. Hopefully there is an Apple around 40 years from now, thinking differently and marching to the beat of their own drummer. Every industry needs an “Apple” in their midst.