Quick. When you hear the name John Sculley, what comes to mind?
Conspirator? Failed CEO? Uh, visionary?
As we all know, Sculley’s attempts to fill Steve’s visionary shoes didn’t quite pan out. Newton was a good idea, lacking only in the technology that would make it work well. (Though it did provide excellent fodder for the late-night comics).
Sculley’s most revolutionary idea was the Knowledge Navigator. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a product — it was just a video. It was his vision of Apple’s computing future.
The video was beautifully produced, given the standards of the day (1988). Quite a bit of thought and money was poured into it. Unfortunately, the end result was ridiculed on several levels.
If Newton was a few years ahead of its time, the Knowledge Navigator seemed eons ahead. It was as if Ford had produced a video envisioning a helo-car. Plus, the script wasn’t exactly Sorkin-grade.
I have no idea what compelled me to take a fresh look at this video the other day, but I did. What used to be silly about it remains silly. The technology it envisioned, however, doesn’t seem silly at all:
What an absurd idea: a tablet-style device with a touch screen, Facetime and a digital assistant that recognizes the spoken word.
Obviously, this video is far from perfect. I still want to slap the professor at several points, and the script gets way too cute for its own good. But ignore the script and swap out Mr. Bow Tie for the voice of Siri, and you’re just a stone’s throw from Steve Jobs territory.
Clearly Siri has a ways to go before it can parse language as intelligently as the Knowledge Navigator, but no doubt this is the direction Apple is headed. (Spookily, the date shown on the Knowledge Navigator screen is September, 2011 — just one month before Apple unveiled Siri.)
So, while I enjoy bashing John Sculley as much as the next guy, in retrospect I have to give him some credit.
He (and his team) did display a certain sense of the future. It was his sense of the present that did him in. It was his inability to lead any real-world revolutions that made his future visions seem out of touch.
I therefore elevate Sculley to the top of my list of failed Apple CEOs. Partially because his Knowledge Navigator is so very iPad-like, and partially because I can’t remember anything that Spindler or Amelio actually did.