Having just bought my first Mac computer, I have been reflecting on what finally convinced me to depart the PC world. It comes down to simplicity – as I get older and busier, I’m less inclined to mess around with technology. Within a couple of days of switching on my iMac, I had used iMovie to put together a relative’s wedding video that had languished on my video camera for nearly two years after abortive attempts to edit it on my PC. Apple has mastered simplicity where the rest of the industry has layered on complexity.
In his new book Inside Apple, Fortune magazine senior editor at large Adam Lashinsky paints a picture of a company devoted to excellence, but one you and I wouldn’t necessarily like to work for. Top down, command-and-control, secretive, siloed – these are the words that describe Apple, where teams work in isolation, often in competition, unless collaboration is completely necessary.
“The need-to-know mentality explains all the cordoned-off secret rooms with restrictive badge access,” writes Lashinsky of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. “Apple’s culture may be co-operative, but it isn’t usually nice, and it’s almost never relaxed.” I got a sense of that during my only visit to Cupertino, in 2007, shortly after the launch of the iPhone. The company was on a high, but a contact ushered us around self-consciously, speaking in hushed tones. The contrast couldn’t have been greater at our next stop: the Googleplex, just up the road in Mountain View, where the Google headquarters is like a university campus.
Two companies with seemingly widely diverging philosophies that dominate the technology scene today – I know where I’d rather work. But what makes Apple work? What built the largest listed company in the US, one that dominates smartphones, tablets and legal music downloads and sits on a US$75 billion cash pile?
Apple’s secrecy and obsessiveness are actually part of the answer. Anecdotes of that dogged attention to detail displayed by the late Steve Jobs are everywhere. Take iMovie. For the 2005 launch of the high-definition version of the software, Jobs wanted a real wedding shot and edited in iMovie. “The bride was an Apple employee and the wedding was real,” says Lashinsky. “There was one problem with the footage, however: Steve Jobs didn’t like it.” So, the wedding was reshot in Hawaii with a lavish budget.
Jobs ran Apple as a start-up even as it became a giant. Small teams work feverishly to tight deadlines, often in isolation from their colleagues. Knowing when to say no helps. Apple passes up many more opportunities to develop products, services and partnerships than it pursues.
Jobs recruited a management team who would become his disciples and gave great power and massive budgets to favoured underlings such as design supremo Sir Jonathan Ive. Apple delivers masterful advertising, which for a long time was overseen by Jobs himself. He was what a therapist or business coach might call a “productive narcissist”: someone who has the ability to get an entire organisation to see things the way they do.
The question is whether Apple has imprinted Jobs’s DNA strongly enough into the company’s upper management and design ethos to allow it to continue to make, as Jobs put it, “insanely great” products. Apple has had an incredible run over the past 15 years, but Lashinsky is not so sure about the next 15. “A product will fail to delight. A member of the senior management team will depart, and then another. It will confront a host of problems, not least of which will be the scrutiny of a world that obsessively watches its efforts to continue its string of success.”
Apple still has an impressive pipeline of products – and we haven’t even glimpsed the Apple TV set rumoured to be hitting the market later this year. And it seems to be keeping the Apple fanboys happy. “For the rest of us,” says Lashinsky, “our expectations of Apple were always lower. We’ll keep buying merely great products for a long time.”
Click here for the full interview with Inside Apple author Adam Lashinsky.