Why Larry Ellison is wrong about Apple

on August 16, 2013

In a recent TV interview with Charlie Rose, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison raised a few eyebrows when he suggested that Apple best days are over since Steve Jobs is no longer there to be its guiding light. When asked about Apple’s future, Ellison said that we saw Apple once before when Jobs was not there and suggested that without him at the helm, Apple will most likely have the same fate.

I am sure that this view comes from his deep relationship with Jobs and the great loss he still feels now that Steve is gone. However, his view on Apple after Jobs was ousted in 1985 vs. Apple without Jobs now is just plain wrong. When Steve was with Apple up to 1985, everything Apple did revolved around Jobs. He was young, brash, egotistical and an extremely poor manager.

I witnessed first hand Job’s maniacal behavior just before he was ousted when I was asked to meet with him and then CEO, John Sculley at Apple’s HQ. Jobs and Sculley were going to push the early desktop publishing concept and wanted my feedback on something since I did a printer report three years earlier where I predicted “if laser printers could be placed on desktops, we could someday see people publishing documents from the desktop.” At that time laser printers were room sized but I had seen Canon’s desktop printer laser engine in the labs four years earlier and saw its potential impact on personal publishing.

As we were talking a senior level engineer knocked on the door and told Steve about a problem he was having. Jobs was not pleased with what he said and called him stupid and an idiot. Both Sculley were very embarrassed as he berated this guy right in front of us. But when the guy left, Jobs went back to being himself and kept on talking as if nothing had happened.

Two months later Sculley and the board fired Jobs and Sculley took over as its only leader. Under Sculley Apple actually made some important strides. They introduced desktop publishing and the Mac became a serious business tool. He integrated CD Roms into the Mac and launched the multimedia revolution in the early 1990’s. In fact it took the PC crowd two years to catch up and Apple’s early lead in multimedia. This was a key feature which finally brought the Mac to consumers as they saw multimedia content as key learning tools for their kids.

Eventually Sculley was fired and Apple then went into its dark period under CEO’s Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio. Ellison was right in the sense that even though Apple stayed afloat under Sculley for a time, Apple without Jobs at that point was clearly in decline.

We all know what happened when Jobs came back in 1997 and started revolutionizing the market with the iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads. But unlike the last time Jobs left Apple, this time he was much more aware of his human frailties and starting in 2002, began preparing Apple for the day when he could no longer lead the company. That means that this time he began pouring himself into Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Peter Openheimer and their top leaders to make sure they understood his vision, ideas, management spirit and philosophy as well as pouring his vision and design skills into Johnny Ive.

While Apple cannot be the same without Jobs because he was one of a kind, the Apple he left behind is nothing like the Apple he left behind when he was fired in 1985. This is why Ellison is just plain wrong about Apple. This time Apple is in much better shape financially, motivationally, and under Jobs directed and inspired leadership. Apple now has a Steve Jobs trained team to carry on his work and vision and I have no doubt that Steve Jobs left them well equipped to keep Apple moving forward and delighting their customers for many years to come.

The 1980’s are nothing like 2013 and beyond and the Apple Jobs left back then is nothing like the Apple he left in tact today. If you buy the narrative that history will repeat itself and Android will do to Apple what Microsoft did to them in the 90’s then I suggest you read Ben’s analysis on why history will not repeat itself.

Dear Industry: Why History Won’t Repeat Itself