Sculley on Jobs

Last Updated on March 26, 2019 by Dave Farquhar

John Sculley famously fired Steve Jobs in 1985, a move that’s pretty universally panned today. This week, someone asked Sculley about it.

Here’s the money quote:

“He was not a great executive back in those early days. The great Steve Jobs that we know today as maybe the world’s greatest CEO, certainly of our era, he learned a lot in those years in the wilderness.”

Apple in 1985

Sculley on Jobs
Steve Jobs’ 1980s projects at Apple didn’t turn to gold. They were expensive flops. And by 1985, John Sculley had enough.

This was the problem in 1985: The Macintosh wasn’t selling. The Apple II was, but it had a lot of competition. The Mac was about to get some formidable competition. The Apple Lisa had been a flop. The Apple III was a flop. Jobs and his projects weren’t getting it done. And Jobs’ answer was to knife the Apple II, the only product Apple made that was selling well. The 8-bit era seemed like it was on borrowed time in 1985, but those venerable 8-bit machines still had about five good years left in them.

Most analysts wanted Apple to produce an IBM PC clone, or, better yet, buy one made in Korea and stamp its label on it. Apple resisted that, but the biggest reason Apple survived was because, as unhealthy as it was, Commodore and Atari were just as bad off, and Apple did a better job of listening to its engineers.

It wouldn’t have taken much for one of the other two companies to have survived that decade instead.

Steve Jobs in the wilderness

While the computer industry engaged itself in its cage match–remember, Apple is the only major computer company from the 1980s that’s still in the market–Jobs toiled away in obscurity, nuturing yet another flop. Along the way he bought Pixar, a company with great ideas that was waiting for technology to catch up with them.

Sculley on Jobs
The NeXT products were revolutionary but sold poorly.

Maybe that’s what NeXT, Jobs’ big post-Apple flop, had in common with Pixar. There wasn’t anything horribly wrong with those NeXT boxes, except they were incredibly expensive, and they felt underpowered to me. It was cool and all. It was nice to use a machine that didn’t crash all the time too. But a 68040-based Amiga ran rings around a 68040-based NeXT. And it cost about 40% as much, too.

So what clicked while Jobs was in the wilderness? That ancient Wired interview holds some clues. But it seems to me that something about Pixar finally hitting it big with Toy Story convinced him to stop trying to change the world through technology and content himself with selling it stuff, using technology as a means to do it, and letting the technology catch up when it would.

Jobs famously lured Sculley to Apple by asking him if he would rather sell sugar water or change the world. I think Jobs became successful when he decided to be more like Sculley. Here’s how Jobs figured out how to get around Microsoft.

And, as much as some would like to romanticize about Jobs spending his whole career with Apple, does Jobs make that step without striking out (in more than one sense) on his own? I’m not sure that he does.

So was Sculley right to fire Steve Jobs, or wrong?


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