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Understanding Apple
Volume Number:10
Issue Number:5
Column Tag:Inside Information

Understanding Apple

What is it about Apple that’s so different?

By Chris Espinosa, Apple Computer, Inc., MacTech Magazine Regular Contributing Author

Many readers of this column have been working with Apple for years, some from as far back as the Apple II days. In the subsequent years, Apple has grown from a few thousand people selling two or three product lines to a 13,000 person, $8 billion dollar multinational corporation that pumps out about 5 million personal computers a year, plus software, printers, peripherals, and services.

For people who are approaching it for the first time, Apple can be a pretty confusing place. Some of Apple’s corporate actions are unfathomable even to the most experienced Apple-watchers. Over the past year I’ve been in the Development Products Group, associated with the PowerPC development tools, Bedrock, MPW, and new development environments, as well as our activities with Taligent and Kaleida. Apple has taken a lot of flack for the progress of and communications about these projects. Sometimes it’s clear to me why there’s an uproar, and sometimes I just can’t figure it out.

I’ve just taken a six-week sabbatical to get some perspective on the company I’ve been with for seventeen years, and I can see some of the frustrations a little more clearly. I don’t want to be an apologist for the actions of Apple and its people (and I also don’t want to tell tales out of school; being a MacTech columnist just doesn’t pay well enough to be a full time job, if you know what I mean). But I think I can shed some light on why Apple behaves the way it does, and that might help you in interpreting its actions.

The not-so-insightful facts are that Apple is a large company in the personal computer business. It’s more than a cliché that the PC business is volatile; it’s an impatient, default assumption. Prices fall, performance rises, distribution channels change, old customers get educated, and new customers emerge. But even through that, the personal computer food chain stays pretty consistent: Apple, IBM and Compaq are usually the top 3; AST, Dell, and others make up the middle tier; then there’s the “rest of the market” that’s bigger than all the big names combined.

The obvious results of running with the big dogs is a certain amount of risk-aversion. If you look at Apple’s product line proliferation, product naming, and sudden price drops, they’re all products of needing to be competitive, and in many cases, in doing what the competition does. I know that a lot of people wouldn’t know an Ambra from a Presario from a Performa, but neither would they know an Integra from a Camry.

Size also means that some things that used to be easier to do have gotten harder. When the entire Mac product line consisted of three CPUs and two printers, it was fairly easy to test all combinations. Now the combinations of CPUs, system software versions, peripherals, and options is unimaginable. This and many other problems of scale make following the Mac more disappointing than it was five years ago. A certain amount of the Mac magic has been lost in the five million units per year.

Other things have added to that loss of magic, too. Everybody knows that Apple has a kind of “corporate bulimia,” with hiring spurts alternating with layoffs. What’s remarkable is that through this turnover, an oral tradition has carried forward the Macintosh design ethic in both hardware and software, even though the designers themselves have come and gone. But there’s a qualitative difference between maintenance and expansion of a ten-year-old product line and the original innovation. There are users to support and applications to carry forward. The blank canvas we worked on in 1983 has become an origami puzzle. So even though the design ethic has survived, the problem is now different. Apple’s culture of innovation is frequently frustrated with the Mac platform, trying to balance the desire to make radical changes with the need to keep the platform stable.

If you understand these two constraints - magnitude and inertia - you can see where some of the frustration with Apple originates. But these don’t explain some other frustrations about living with Apple: the miscommunication, the changes in strategy, the inattention to the needs of some of its most valued partners. Other companies have problems with magnitude and history, too, but deal with people squarely. What is it about Apple that is so different?

In the mid Eighties it was called “Apple arrogance.” It was being late to meetings, not answering phone calls (and later, not returning voice mails), starting bold, ambitious programs and discontinuing them the next year, and missing most product delivery dates by quarters (or sometimes years). And people saw Apple arrogance as coming from an inflated corporate ego, a self-assurance that Apple had The Better Way and therefore could do what it wanted.

What made it confusing to be at Apple in that time was that I saw very few people who were actually very arrogant. In fact, I considered the people I worked with to be very open, eager to please, and very concerned about the welfare of customers and developers. Of course, they were very busy, and things were changing fast, and sometimes things slipped through the cracks...and it mystified me that people got so upset when we were all trying so hard and had such good intentions.

What’s become clearer to me on my sabbatical is that Apple’s corporate culture is built around being left out. From the moment Woz chose the 6502 over the 8080 as the heart of the Apple I, Apple has always been the alternative, the kid that gets left out of the basketball game. And like most bright-but-different kids, Apple became a show-off, trying hard to get people to like it.

Certainly it works. Apple’s customers and developers show it a kind of dedication and loyalty that is rare and precious. But Apple doesn’t respond the same, because at its heart it still feels like the 10% platform, not the industry-leading hardware platform. Apple Arrogance actually covers a deep corporate loneliness and wanting to belong. And as long as DOS, Windows, and Intel dominate, or NextStep, Taligent, and Magic Cap threaten to steal the spotlight, Apple will be insecure, and respond accordingly.

A lot of this behavior doesn’t make sense. The 1989 price increase, for example, or the ten-year refusal to license the ROMs, or putting the Apple II line on life support all are hard to justify on business or technical terms alone. But imagine that they were made by a confused teenager who’s jealous of an older brother and scared by a new baby in the family, and they make a little more sense.

Of course Apple employees and executives aren’t confused seventeen-year-olds. But the culture as a whole can act like it sometimes. The bad news is that during this awkward phase, Apple will continue to act moody and isolated. But the good news is that seventeen-year-olds grow up. As Apple develops some honest self-esteem through the success of the Power PC and OpenDoc, and gets some recognition for being its old innovative self through Newton, I hope to see the corporate culture bloom with self-confidence to replace arrogance, and be able to deal with adults like adults.

 
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