Last week Steve Jobs grabbed the spotlight from tech competitor Hewlett Packard and news of the fire-sale prices on its failed Touchpad ($99 from $499!) when the Apple co-founder announced his resignation as its CEO.
Even though Jobs will stay on as Apple’s board chairman, the news rocked not just fans of the maker of Macintosh computers (desktops and laptops), the iPod, iPhone and iPad, but business rivals and investors.
Thanks to his string of legendary new-product announcements in which he routinely pulled high-tech rabbits out of hats (along with the occasional yawner), Jobs is to many the heart, soul and face of Apple, despite the facts he co-founded the company with Steve Wozniak in the mid-1970s and began ceding much of the day-to-day operations to other Apple execs in recent years.
The main reason for his resignation was not age — he is just 56 years old. It was his health. A few years ago Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had a tumor removed. In 2009 he underwent liver transplant surgery. For a number of months as he convalesced until his return, his lieutenants, including new CEO Tim Cook, ran the show.
In recent years he has appeared Auschwitz-thin, even though his eyes still retained the intensity of his youth. Still, the demands of being CEO of the brightest bright spot — Apple now has a market cap of $361 billion and cash reserves of some $76 billion—in America’s otherwise anemic economy right now were beyond him. Hence, his resignation as CEO.
The story arc of Jobs’ professional career is a legend in our time. But believe it or not, he had an antecedent whose career and electronics company presaged Jobs as a visionary and Apple as a consumer electronics powerhouse. I’m referring to the late Akio Morita and Sony Corp.
While Jobs and the older Wozniak co-founded Apple under humble circumstances (a suburban garage), Morita and the older Masaru Ibuka, launched their company in even humbler circumstances, a war-ravaged Tokyo. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Jobs saw Morita as a personal role model and Sony as corporate role model.
Jobs’ story is, however, unique. He was ousted from Apple by his handpicked CEO in the mid-1980s. But before that, via the Macintosh computer, he introduced to the computer-using masses the idea of the graphical user interface or GUI.
The Mac’s GUI, along with the consumer laser printer, ushered in the era of desktop publishing. At the time (mid- to late 1980s), it was a revolution. The idea of being able to lay out a newspaper or magazine on a computer screen so that it looked like the finished, printed product was astounding.
My former boss at the Pacific Citizen, Harry Honda, might be chagrined at me for the following, but I remember broaching the idea of switching to Macintosh from the Linotype Lintronic 300 imagesetter to produce the newspaper. It would output text on photographic paper, which had to be cut into strips after being processed with chemicals, waxed and laid out on blue-lined boards. Halftones (photos) were sent out to a guy named Vern in Santa Fe Springs. It was a tedious, time-consuming process that made you pay dearly for any errors.
Once I saw “WYSIWYG” [pronounced “wizzywig” for “what you see is what you get”]desktop publishing on a Macintosh, I knew this was the future, this was what we needed to switch to. When I broached the topic to Harry, he told me flat out: “You can’t put out a newspaper on a Mac.” Actually, he was right — I couldn’t because I was gone before the Pacific Citizen eventually switched to Macintoshes, which last I saw they still use today.
Back to Apple. Even though they brought the GUI to the people, archrival Microsoft copied it in the guise of Windows. Already a cash-generating machine thanks to licensing revenue from every computer that used its DOS environment, Windows helped Microsoft to dominate as the world’s top computer software corporation. So, despite being first in the market with a superior product, a second-rate copycat rival ate Apple’s lunch. But this scenario had already occurred in a different field when Sony’s technically superior Betamax home video system came out first, only to be supplanted by the longer-playing, cheaper yet inferior VHS format developed by JVC and backed by arch-rival Matsushita.
The Macintosh was a game-changer, nevertheless. Sony had one also: The Sony Trinitron TV, which in the 1960s and ’70s blew away its competition in color TV picture quality. It built a better mousetrap and succeeded big time and was one of the pillars upon which Sony built its reputation and fortune.
Within a decade of Jobs’ departure, Apple foundered. Reportedly three months away from bankruptcy, Apple bought his startup, the Unix-based NeXT Computer, which became the foundation for OS X, the new operating system of Apple’s Macintosh line.
Meantime, Jobs had a little sideline that he bought from George Lucas called Pixar, a pioneer in computer graphics and animation. Today, we all know the brand as the gold standard of CG animation, but like Apple at the time, it didn’t look like it could ever amount to much. How things change!
Once again, though, Morita and Sony got into the movie business first, when it bought Columbia Pictures in 1989 at the apogee of Japan’s industrial boom.
When prodigal son Jobs returned to Apple, he began making changes immediately, most notably with the candy-colored iMac line of the late 1990s and the “Think Different” ad campaign. Still, the Apple of the late 1990s was not the Apple of today. It took many years (and some different thinking) before Apple became the success story of now.
After the success of the iMac and its many iterations, the next big thing that would change everything was the iPod, a tiny multimedia (originally music was the only thing it could play) playback device. Just like Apple was not the inventor of the graphical user interface, iPod was not the first “MP3 player.” But Apple, thanks to the convergence of off-the-shelf technology like the Hitachi Microdrive, a brilliant designer named Johnnie Ive and Jobs’ persnickety attention to detail and dedication to simplicity, made it at the time the biggest consumer electronics product of the new millennium.
Before the iPod, though, Sony, at Morita’s insistence, developed in the late 1970s another iconic device that had people wearing headphones and listening to music while on the go: the Walkman. Though limited by today’s standards, the Walkman personal cassette tape player was for its time liberating and fun. Just like early pundits pooh-poohed the Walkman (“No speakers?!”), so too did observers denounce the first iPod as an overpriced indulgence. Some people never learn. Each sold millions, but nowadays anyone under 10 might not even know the term “Walkman.”
Key to the success of the iPod as a piece of hardware, however, was the iTunes software application, and later its iTunes Music Store, which in turn helped Macintosh sales. When Internet piracy began to seriously devour the revenue stream of the music business, Steve Jobs went to the major labels and convinced them to sell their music legally via iTunes, arguably saving the faltering industry.
Once again, however, Apple’s foray into the music business was preceded by Sony’s 1988 purchase of the CBS Records Group, which included Columbia Records and Epic Records.
Post-iPod, Apple went on a roll. It came out with the Mac mini, the MacBook Air, gained market share in nonlinear video editing with its Final Cut Pro application, improved on its FireWire connectivity, launched its Apple Store retail arm (including stores in Tokyo and London), added movies, TV shows and podcast subscriptions to iTunes, upgraded OS X several times, switched to Intel chips so it could run Mac OS X and Windows and more.
Then, in 2007 it followed up on the iPod with the iPhone, which combined the functionality of the iPod with a revolutionary touchscreen interface cellphone, as well as the added value of Internet connectivity superior to any other mobile device.
Apple had dipped its toe into cellphones with Motorola, but the iPhone was a game changer, not just for Apple but for the entire mobile communications industry. The concept for specialty applications or “apps” that used the iPhone as the platform turbocharged it, since no other phone makers did it or did it as well. The iPhone was an enormous hit and still is.
Sony was into cellphones too, well before Apple. But things had shifted, especially after Morita’s death in 1999. Even though Sony was a pioneer in all things digital (it co-developed the Compact Disc with Phillips), a number of missteps plagued the company. For instance, some believe a former Sony Music Entertainment chief’s resistance to changing to digital downloads from physical distribution (the CD) helped Sony to lose ground as the foundation of that business model shifted.
Also, flatscreen TVs are now de rigueur; while Sony still makes a fine flatscreen, it no longer sets the standard the way the Trinitron once did and has lost ground in an area it once owned to rivals like Korea’s Samsung, unthinkable just 15 years ago. Sony had a big hit in the 1990s with its PlayStation game platform, but its follow-ups in that area failed to inspire. In the format wars, Sony’s Blu-ray disc beat Toshiba’s HD- DVD; it was a welcome change from losing the Betamax-VHS war, but the victory came as just as consumers were switching to streaming Internet video and a reluctance to switch from regular and cheaper DVDs, which for many people is “good enough.”
In April 2010, Jobs introduced the iPad, a tablet computer that specialized in content delivery: music, movies and TV shows, games, magazines and newspapers. We are still in the early stages of determining the impact of the iPad, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the iPad and tablet computing will be disrupting and changing the status quo for years to come.
But it’s also the sort of technology that Sony, under Morita, might have pioneered in its heyday. Sony has just launched its Tablet S to compete with the iPad and wants to become No. 2 in tablets during 2012. If it’s anything like the “iPod killer” Walkmans that all failed, I seriously doubt that Sony can supplant Apple in tablets or even be the No. 2 company in that arena.
Until Apple came along, Japanese companies dominated not only the U.S. market for consumer electronics, Japanese companies dominated the domestic market, with the exception of a few U.S.-made high-end audio systems made by McIntosh, Counterpoint (now defunct) and the like.
IPods outselling Walkmans? IPhones outselling Sony-Ericsson cellphones? In Japan, no less? MacBook laptops having more cachet in Tokyo than Toshiba, Sony or NEC? Who’d have thought? Yet it has happened, thanks to Apple and thanks to Steve Jobs.
While I think it’s safe to say that Jobs and Apple followed the game plan laid out by Morita and Sony, Apple took things to a new level. Jobs learned from his mentor — and using the inherent strengths of his company, improved upon the model.
As a longtime fan and buyer of Apple products, I have to admit feeling good about the fortunes of the company, even though I regrettably own no Apple stock. (I remember when shares were trading for $25; now it’s about $390!)
Even though Jobs is no longer Apple’s CEO, my wishful thinking is that as long as he has some level of physical well-being, he might just concentrate his energies and fortune on ways to make California, the United States and the world a better place. Let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me if Jobs had a few more rabbits to pull out of hats that will surprise, inspire and delight us all.
There are those who believe that Sony began its slide into mediocrity after Morita died in 1999. Maybe. But there is no dismissing the similarities between Jobs and Morita, Apple and Sony. As a Apple admirer and a former admirer of Sony, I hope that Apple does not follow the trajectory of Sony without its visionary leader at the helm.
But if Morita were still with us and if he had the chance to observe how Apple grew, innovated and prospered in the first decade of the 2000s, I just have to believe that he’d be mighty proud of the student who learned and improved upon his achievements: Steve Jobs.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)