Jul 12

Maybe Sculley wasn’t so $#@ after all?

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.

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  • The Cappy

    Anybody can do science fiction. Implementation and execution — that’s hard.

  • ksegall

    True, but fanciful dreams don’t usually end up looking so much like an actual product 20 years later. (Trust me, I’m no Sculley fan, but this bit of vision wasn’t far off.)

  • nsw

    Amelio bought Next.

    I don’t think Sculley was so awful, though Isaacson’s accounts do not paint him in a flattering light.  Sculley benefited, I think, from having worked very closely with Jobs while Apple was still somewhat functional.  By the time Amelio arrived, it was a total mess, with much less to build on.  Spindler, as far as I can recall, was simply ill-suited to the job of CEO and was a complete loss.

  • ksegall

    Amelio did indeed buy NeXT, but to fully credit him with that purchase makes him sound smarter than he was. The deal with Apple was actually step one in Steve Jobs’ plan to “get Apple back,” as confirmed by Larry Ellison in Isaacson’s book (and elsewhere). Steve actively courted Amelio to convince him that NeXT was the right acquisition, and to inject himself back into the company, ultimately becoming CEO.

    If Amelio was that perceptive, he would have realized that by purchasing NeXT he was sealing his own doom.

  • SSpindler

    No relation to that Spindler as far as I know, but I hate seeing my last name tied to a failure at Apple.

  • RedMercury

    People like to bash Sculley, but I always like to point out that Steve Jobs was running Apple into the ground.

    Steve Jobs was behind the Apple III–a machine that had tons of problems (remember that you had to drop the machine from time to time in order to reseed the chips?)  Macintosh sales were way below what Apple expected when it first shipped.  The only thing that was selling well was the Apple II and Steve was well removed from that.

    When Jobs left/was kicked out, Sculley brought in Jean-Louis Gassee.  Suddenly, you had Macs whose memory could be upgraded without buying a whole new machine (Mac Plus, Mac SE).  You had the Macintosh II.  QuickTime and Hypercard both came out during John Sculley’s tenure.  32-bit address spaces,  CD-ROM drives included in all models, PowerBooks, etc., all under Sculley.

    From the business standpoint, Apple’s highest Macintosh market-share was 13%–a feat that has only recently been beaten.  Of course, the market was much different back then.

    If there’s someone to blame for Apple’s downfall, I’d look at Michael Spindler.  Spindler was the one who started the “Performa” line and created the Battlin’ Business Unit anarchy that Apple became.

  • nsw

    Agreed, and I don’t want to paint Amelio as some kind of genius, but like the manager who gets blamed for losses and gets credit for wins… buying Next still falls under the admittedly short “good things that Amelio did” column.

  • Kauaiwaves

    amelio saw that apple needed steve back. he bought next and let jobs back in. i can’t imagine any other ceo doing such a thing. he should be credited with that which has led to many good things. amelio saved apple from my perspective.

  • Jonathan Fletcher

    What re you talking about? Amelio brought back Jobs! Smarted CEO move evar!

  • Jonathan Fletcher

    Whoa. Not much of a spellR their. ::-(

  • Etype Series

    notice the cyber geek in the bow tie was played by a youthful David Pogue? hmmm? enjoy your lunch.

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  • Ken-
    Apple released new mac commercials this weekend.  I’d love to hear your opinion, as I think they are worth commenting on!