Steve Jobs

An open letter to Steve Jobs: Is the core of Apple rotten?

Dear Steve,

SteveJobs.jpg

You certainly deserve all the credit and attention you've received in recent years. Apple's rise, fall, and then reemergence is the stuff of corporate legend and has enabled Apple to attain a truly iconic place in the world. You personally have achieved a level of public adoration unprecedented among the geek classes. The Mac personal computer, iPod and iTunes, and, most recently, the iPhone are all testaments to your engineering genius and marketing savvy.

The success of the iPhone alone must be beyond your wildest dreams: 25 million units sold, 24/7 buzz, status symbol and fashion statement. And you must be loving how all of those companies you're fighting in the mobile-technology wars are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you to make a better iPhone.

People love the Apple story because it represents so much of what makes our country great: entrepreneurial spirit, ingenuity, creativity, innovation, savvy, style, capitalism, marketing and popular culture. Add underdog status (to that behemoth named Microsoft), your charismatic leadership and an inspiring comeback story, and you have all the makings of the great American success story.

Yet it's what's at the core of Apple that troubles me. Beneath the shiny peel, the sweetness of brilliant leadership and fresh popular-culture hipness is a core that looks pretty rotten, with what appears to be a tyrannical leader and a culture that seems to be more closed and secretive than North Korea.

You definitely didn't want anyone looking under the hood of the iPhone. According to reports, Apple argued to the U.S. Copyright Office that "jailbreaking" would lead to a "potentially catastrophic attack" on cyberspace and benefit drug dealers (are you kidding?). But you're a smart guy and saw the writing on the wall. Thinking that if you can't beat 'em, have 'em join you, you turned those hackers and developers into allies by licensing their apps to sell at your online App Store from which, not surprisingly, you make millions of dollars in profits.

You exert an almost-unheard-of level of control over all of your products. The development and release of the iPhone was veiled in a degree of secrecy usually saved for presidents and weapons systems. And you run a tighter PR ship than President Obama did during his campaign. Your exclusive U.S. contract with AT&T appears to be a stroke of financial genius, but it also resulted in less freedom and fewer choices for iPhone buyers.

If all that isn't bad enough, some of your recent behavior really causes me to ask what is going on at the core of Apple. You made Google wait in line for approval of several of its apps for the App Store as if it was one of those developers who works out of his basement, and then-now this shows chutzpah-you rejected some of the apps because they might compete with your own apps or cut into your buddy AT&T's revenues. Then, you change your software to prevent the Palm Pre from accessing iTunes. How does this make you look? Well, just plain petty to me. You're acting like the child taking his ball home because no one will let him play quarterback. As Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia , told the  the NY Times recently,  "There's something unseemly about what Apple is doing. It's very counter to the ideals of openness, which is a concept Apple pioneered in computing." Also, hypocritical given that you encouraged openness in the music industry in 2007. What's good for the goose and all.

My fear is also that you've drunk too much of your own Apple-flavored Kool-Aid. These days, the media is portraying you as a cult-like figure, a messianic leader tending to his flock. Your presentations at the annual Macworld conference feel oddly worshipful. And, strangely, your absences from the conference garner even more attention and, to Apple devotees, portend doom. Rumors of your health and future involvement with Apple are eerily reminiscent of Kim Jong-Il.

When I did a search for "Steve Jobs perfectionist, control freak," do you know how many results I got? Almost seven thousand.  A review of the first few dozen indicated a broad consensus on that point. Having worked with and written about perfectionists and control freaks for many years, it's obvious why you're so successful. But I've also found that these people aren't very happy or at peace because they devote so much time and energy to trying to be perfect and in control (truly futile tasks). I hope your recent health problems will lead you to do some soul searching and make some fundamental leadership and company changes.

Also, consider where you want to take Apple as you head toward your legacy years. What kind of person and leader do you want to be the rest of your career and life? And how do you want people to remember Steve Jobs and Apple?  

Because I'm not the only one who's losing the love for you, Steve. Jason Calacanis wrote a scathing post about you that shares many of my concerns (and several others). People are starting to catch onto you and they will turn on you at some point.

If you stay on your current path, the demise of Apple, seems likely, if not immediate. Such a tightly controlled environment ultimately suffocates all those within and alienates those outside (just look at the USSR). It's ironic that the man who gave us the ground-breaking 1984 ad actually now more resembles the guy on the screen than the runner wielding the sledgehammer.

Walking around the office in jeans and a black mock turtleneck isn't openness. And neither are clever ads or attractive products. All are just the skin of Apple. Openness has to start at the core of Apple, by which I mean you. Openness begins with loosening your grip on Apple just a bit, allowing others, like Google and Palm, to harness your technology for the benefit of all end users, and collaborating on new technology.

Openness promotes new ideas, greater innovation, and feel-good narratives that are actually good for business. And, at a personal level, openness makes people happier, more relaxed, and more fun to be around. Openness is an investment that will pay off with good will, good relationships, and good karma for many years to come. I can't provide a guarantee, but I'm going to suggest that this approach will also have a significant upside financially for Apple in the coming years.

If you'd like to speak further, just call and we can schedule an appointment.

Kind regards,

Jim

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, is a corporate consultant, speaker, and author. He hosts a personal blog at drjimtaylor.com.

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