Same old worm in the Apple

A week after Time taps Steve Jobs as the new model for American business, it turns out that Apple is struggling to ship computers out the door.

Published October 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

From a glowing Time cover story about Apple head honcho Steve Jobs, dated Oct. 18 (and on newsstands Oct. 11):

For years Apple overpromised to customers and underdelivered to dealers, nearly self-destructing from inventory feasts and famines. Now worldwide sales chief [Mitch Mandich] makes sure MacSupply meets MacDemand.

From a CNet story of Oct. 18:

"I get tired of telling people I have no new iMacs, G4s, or iBooks to sell," said an unidentified and clearly frustrated Apple salesperson at one CompUSA on the East Coast. The store had two iMac DVs tucked away in storage, one blueberry and another grape, one of which was snapped up before it made it out to the shelves, the salesperson said.


Just a week ago, Time declared Jobs had not only changed consumer product history with his fruity line-up of luscious Macs, not only turned Pixar into a powerful challenger to Disney's dominance of the kiddie demographic, but also, with his band of henchmen, rationalized Apple's production processes to make it a model for technology corporations.

That was the beginning of last week. By the end of last week, however, Jobs was explaining to analysts that, um, Apple didn't actually have enough new computers to fill demand, citing Motorola's production problems. So much for the end of "feasts and famines."

No matter, Jobs told analysts, offering a novel solution. Apple would just ship computers with older and slower chips to customers who'd ordered faster ones. For the same price.

Selling older products for higher prices to customers who thought they were getting something else is a plan that many large corporations would love to pursue. Even Jobs couldn't pull that one off, and this week Apple retreated from the ill-starred plan amid copious apologies.

In all fairness, Apple has had a stunning turnaround since the dark days under Gil Amelio. It's also important to note that having too much demand is probably a better position to be in than having millions of computers that no one wants to buy.

But Apple as a model of business efficiency? No cigar.

So how could Time have been proved wrong so fast? The answer is that, increasingly, in a time of skyrocketing market indicators, company heads have become celebrities, and are marketed as vigorously as any of their products. Jobs and Gates, in fact, were even treated with a made-for-TV movie -- "Pirates of Silicon Valley." And when the press finds a CEO, like Jobs, who seems to know what he's doing, he gets credit for everything under the sun. The details hardly matter.

If only running companies were like acting in films. After all, with real celebrities, the game is simple: Whoever is most popular wins. That's what celebrity is all about. You can't go wrong putting the highest-grossing actor on the cover of the magazine. Technology, unfortunately, involves all sorts of ugly details, like getting millions of computer chips into factories on time. It is partly about celebrity -- Apple probably does owe some of its recent success to Jobs' high-profile persona. But it's not primarily about this. That's why the '90s penchant for turning corporate CEOs into the latest version of celebrities is a risky business. One is too likely to be proved wrong too soon.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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