2 min read

Jobs’ comeback is the stuff of legends

Remembering Apple's struggles is as important as its accomplishments

After a resignation of Steve Jobs’ stature, the accomplishments of a CEO become the stuff of legend, and their challenges can sometimes be forgotten. But there was a time, less than 20 years ago, when Apple was like a lot of VARs today: mired in organizational complexity, under-competing and scrambling for revenue.

Today, Apple’s comeback story seems as distant as the idea of the old “Mac faithful” who bought and cherished Apple products no matter how out of step they were with existing pricing and standards. As news of Job’s departure spread rapidly through the industry and social media, I kept thinking back to my very first out-of-town assignment for CDN: covering MacWorld ‘97 in Boston, where everything started to turn around.

Jobs, who had recently returned to the company after dabbling with NeXT, was his usual commanding self onstage, and at the time the big news surrounded a US$150 million “cash infusion” from Microsoft. But in many ways that keynote was the beginnings of a strategy that many resellers would be wise to adopt. Some of the core elements include:

Only sell what sells: Apple’s product list used to be a confusing labyrinth of desktops, notebooks and printers. That year in Boston, Jobs announced that its portfolio would be pared down into four quadrants based on the kind of user, and much of the chaff eliminated. Instead of losing breadth, Apple’s remaining lineup became easier to identify. How well do most reseller’s customers understand their core offerings?

Lead, rather than follow customer demand: No one was begging Apple to get into the music business. After the failed Newton, no one was betting on Apple to create a handheld in the form of a phone. Tablets had been tried and abandoned by customers long before the iPad. The Apple run by Steve Jobs set trends rather than followed them, by imagining the information consumption patterns of the coolest users imaginable. No wonder we all buy Apple’s products in order to be like them. A lot of VARs wait for customers to tell them what they want. Steve Jobs waited for no one.

Choose a market and stick to it: Apple could have kept its toe in the enterprise, but Jobs announced a concentrated focus on consumers rather than business. This meant Apple no longer had to convince CIOs that users would love their products. Now besotted consumers are making that case to CIOs on Apple’s behalf. Not all channel players can become retailers, but they may not always need to go after the same decision-maker.

Say it like you mean it: Much has been made of Jobs’ onstage charisma, but it boils down to this: When he introduced a new product, he always positioned it as redefining its category, his customer base, or both. How often does the average VAR manage to convey that sense of passionate belief in the transformative power of IT?

Over the next few months everyone is going to be talking about what will happen to Apple now that Jobs is gone. A real measure of leadership, however, is not just their impact on the company they ran but the industry in which they worked. The question is not how well did Apple absorb his lessons, but how well did everyone else?