Apple’s Numbers

“He not busy being born is busy dying.”

So said Bob Dylan, in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a fountain of wisdom on “Bringing It All Back Home,” a transition from politics to inner truth, from folk to rock, this was the LP before “Highway 61 Revisited,” when Dylan became a household name with “Like A Rolling Stone.”

But that’s what Dylan was, a man who kept rolling, kept changing, kept exploring, who was not married to the past and cared not a whit for naysayers.

Kind of like Steve Jobs.

And as long as Jobs was at the helm of Apple the company burgeoned.

But those days are through. To expect the Cupertino company to continue to triumph is to expect the Doors to succeed without Jim Morrison.

Granted, some bands survive the loss of their frontman. Van Halen soldiered on with Sammy Hagar, and Phil Collins emerged from behind the kit to lead Genesis, but usually…when the creative genius is gone, it’s over.

But the public does not want to believe this.

It’s hard to get people’s attention, it’s hard to gain their loyalty, but once they’re inured to you they don’t want to give up. Exhibit number one is BlackBerry. Anybody who’d used an iPhone knew the Canadian company was toast. But even the financial press was out of the loop, looking at the numbers instead of society.

And what does society want?

Something new and different that not only titillates its fancy, but demonstrates extreme utility.

Unlike the Apple Watch, which was good in theory yet dead on arrival, or after twenty four hours, when it ran out of juice. You had to recharge it, was it worth the effort, or were you better off just putting it in a drawer? And like a cult band from the eighties which hits a wall and goes no further, there was no word of mouth on the Apple Watch, some owners testified, but the rest of the populace just ignored it.

Tim Cook needs to be replaced. Apple doesn’t need a traffic cop, it needs a visionary. Execution is important, but it’s secondary to inspiration. The idea is king, never forget it.

But it won’t happen, because in modern society the board is a tool of the CEO, an echo chamber. And no one likes to take big risks, no one likes to upset the apple cart when things are going reasonably well. But then they start to tank and it’s over.

Kind of like the iPad, replaced by the phablet, the large phone.

The iPad was killed by the phablet the same way the iPod was killed by the iPhone. What did Cook and company do? They doubled-down on the iPad, creating a Pro version with a stylus that was a marvel of technology but is something most people just don’t need. Meanwhile, there was this canard that the device was a desktop replacement when the truth is it’s nothing of the sort.

As for the future…

That’s what we depended upon Steve Jobs for. We’re not techies, we’re not engineers, we’re just consumers. We buy, you provide.

So we’re down to three, Amazon, Google and Facebook, Apple is over.

And it hurts me to say this, being a Mac user since ’86, but he who cannot see the writing on the wall is destined to a life of business illiteracy, never mind being left behind.

You can fail, but you must learn from your mistakes. Amazon killed its Fire phone, but it’s building a juggernaut with its Echo. Apple made the big splash, with Siri, but it’s the Seattle company that’s taking the flag and running with it, doing what Apple used to do best. Yes, Apple did not create the first portable MP3 player nor the first smartphone, it just did it better. Amazon has not only trumped Apple in voice recognition, it put a dent in wireless speaker leader Sonos, which is pivoting at this very moment.

But there’s no pivot at Apple, only an endless victory lap.

As for the electric car… Assuming they’re building one, Steve didn’t focus on me-too products, but breakthrough products. And the breakthrough is in driverless cars, and Google dominates there.

The two founders, the two principals, took over the reins from Eric Schmidt, they no longer need adult supervision. And although they’ve stumbled here and there, Google keeps pushing the envelope, funding new businesses most people haven’t heard of, and adjusting for a mobile economy along the way.

Which Facebook does best. Facebook has made inroads into mobile advertising and the average person just thinks it’s a social network, the same way most people don’t know the prime revenue driver at Amazon is the web services division, not retail.

Smartphones are nearly a commodity. This is what’s hurting Samsung, the cheap competition from the bottom, the Korean company just can’t establish enough differentiation to hold on to market share, never mind profits. Sure, the iPhone has an ecosystem, it may even sport the best OS out there, but Apple has been legendarily bad at services and we need look no further to Sony to see how those selling premium-priced products are ultimately eclipsed. Turned out Samsung was just as good, if not better, in flat panel TVs, the Trinitron was no longer an engine of growth. The future comes and if you don’t continue to lead, you’re toast.

This is not a musical act, which can thrive on the hits of its past. No one wants a cassette Walkman, and no one wants a twenty inch tube TV.

Bill Campbell believed in founders. Turns out adult supervision makes the trains run on time, balances the books, but makes your company moribund. You’ve got to find a way to keep the crazy innovators in charge. And if they can’t adjust their ways, if they can’t get along, they’re booted, like Andy Rubin, or neutered, like Marissa Mayer, both at Google. And yes, Marissa got another gig, where she’s accomplished little, demonstrating the worst parts of her willful, my way or the highway personality in the process. Maybe Yahoo was unfixable, but if the board had done its research it would have never hired her.

Apple needs a house hippie. Someone who can see into the future and bend the company to his or her will. Tim Cook must retreat to doing what he does best, which is overseeing the supply chain, maximizing efficiencies. Steve Jobs got it wrong once, hiring Sculley, he could get it wrong again. The smart money makes changes soon, the dumb money just lets things roll along until the train approaches the wall it’s going to crash into.

This has got little to do with finances today. Despite the drop, Apple is huge and still throwing off cash. But business history is littered with those who dominated today but were marginalized tomorrow.

It’s hard to find an original, someone strong-willed enough to lead minions into a future frequently only they can see. Which is why most bands and most companies don’t make it.

But they shouldn’t. Competition is cutthroat, we’re only interested in the best.

So I don’t know who can lead Apple out of the doldrums. Probably someone young, not invested in the past. Then again, Steve Jobs had an investment in Apple, it was his baby, when he returned he had to make it right.

Who has that investment now?

Kind of like a record company without its founder still in place, run by someone beholden to suits as opposed to his gut.

The history of success is one of great leaps of faith, big risks.

And we haven’t seen any risk from Apple in a long time.

Then again, you’ve got to know where to go.

That’s why movies were so great in the seventies, the directors knew where to go. The suits came in and normalized the industry and today it’s a meaningless scrapheap that generates cash but has the cultural significance of a trash bag, it does its job, it throws out the garbage, and then you forget about it.

Sure, detractors love to deride the leader. Which just illustrates how hard it is to stay on top. But Zuck buys WhatsApp, knowing that messaging is king, having a vision around the world, and Apple still keeps iMessage locked behind a wall.

It’s sad, but it’s time to change leadership at Apple now. Before Cook gets uptight and makes lame acquisitions like Ballmer, purchasing the moribund Nokia, most of its value needing to ultimately be written off.


It happens in music. Shawn Fanning led the way, Daniel Ek has picked up the flag. If you think they’re the enemy you don’t know how the future arrives, it’s in the air, if it wasn’t Shawn it would have been someone else. Ek just found a way to make streaming music work, and continues to double down on the free tier, raising and spending money when everybody twice his age says he’s a bozo.

But those twice his age are already done. They want Robert Plant to reform Led Zeppelin, but in tech we’ve already established that there’s little demand for the past, and the past never grows, it only recedes.

We’ve got an endless supply of MBAs, people who can install order in a land of chaos. But we’ve got very few visionaries, those who deserve the ball like Steph Curry. We thought Michael Jordan could never be matched, but it turns out someone playing a different game could wow us. Who knew the three point shot was so effective?

That’s right, who knows?

Someone does.

And it’s no one at Apple.


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