SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Why do the heavy lifting when you have all the power with none of the accountability?

By Dan Shafer

Published July 31, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the Wall Street Journal's headline said it best: "Even Without the Titles, Jobs is Running Apple." By turning down the Apple board's offers to make him the official CEO or chairman, Jobs made it clear that he prefers it that way.

While his rather bluntly worded rejection of the offers -- explained in an e-mail to employees at his beloved and far more lucrative Pixar company -- looks like another pratfall for Apple, Jobs may have done the struggling computer company a favor.

Had he taken either of the lofty titles, it would have been very hard indeed to recruit an executive capable enough of actually running the business on a day-to-day basis -- a talent that Jobs does not have. He is a technologist, one with flair and style, to be sure, but he doesn't have the marketing or administrative chops to keep Apple afloat, let alone prosperous, in the increasingly murderous waters of the computer business. Even in the less hands-on position of chairman, it's hard to imagine who he could have found to be the CEO. Who would want to come into a company in such parlous straits and at the same time have to deal with its charismatic founder and Fearless Leader once more at the helm?

Jobs himself has consistently said that he is happy where he is, running Pixar and making a fortune on his Pixar stock holdings. Skeptics also pointed to reports that he recently sold all but one share of his Apple stock -- hardly a positive opening gambit in a bid to formally retake the company he founded in a Bay area garage.

Still, the news that he may not after all be introduced as Apple's official leader at the Macworld Expo in Boston next week (there are those who think his rejection of the offers is a gambit to get a better deal) came as a big surprise to many Apple watchers, myself included. In recent days, he had been acting very much like a man about to embark on a major move. Apple sources say he's been ubiquitous on the Cupertino campus of late, calling meetings, dropping by managers' offices to offer strongly worded opinions and advice, and making decisions.

What also made the choice logical is the fact that Apple's technology is being almost entirely remade in the image of Jobs' failure, Next Inc. Virtually all of Apple's key technical decision-makers are ex-Next people. He believes passionately in the Next technology and clearly would love the chance to prove that it's world-class. But turning around Apple would take far more radical steps than successfully implementing the Mac's Next-based new operating system, due out next year.

In the chairman's seat or behind the scenes, Jobs would have to do in public what he has already urged in private: cede the desktop war to the Wintel platform and begin pursuing other avenues. That would mean downsizing the once mighty Apple further, concentrating on key niche markets -- the Web, education and perhaps desktop publishing -- and exploring new software-based technologies in the hopes of finding the next Big Thing.

Focusing on the Web, which previous Apple suits have been promising to do for the past three years, is the rock bottom requirement for Apple's survival. Their failure to fulfill those promises have caused Apple to become irrelevant in the only new market arena that has value and currency. Anyone taking on the task of rescuing Apple has to know that. Whether even a messiah figure like Jobs could perform such a miracle is a bet I would not care to make. But it's going to be very interesting to watch whoever picks up the burden try.

Dan Shafer

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