The longer I've been in the tech industry, the more I've come to realize that predictions about it are usually worthless.
Leave aside the big failed dreams like nuclear-powered aircraft (link) and the transatlantic train tunnel (link). Even products that seem relatively straightforward can be very hard to predict. The industry thought tablets and e-books were imminent for at least a decade before someone got them right, and we're still waiting for micro fuel cells and flexible screens.
There are so many moving parts in the industry, and success depends on so many tiny details of execution, that it's basically impossible to predict even things that look, in retrospect, like they were inevitable.
If it's that hard to predict the fate of individual technologies that have been studied for decades, imagine the difficulty of predicting the fate of an entire company made up of thousands of people and numerous product lines. What you can do is predict what could happen, and even take a guess at the odds. We've all been collectively doing that lately with RIM and Nokia. But even to make that kind of prediction you need to look at companies' management, products, customer base, financial status, and technologies, plus do an assessment of its competitors. Forrester did none of that for Apple. Instead it drew a simple little equation, based on sociological theory: Apple was led by a charismatic founder, as was Sony. After Sony lost its charismatic founder, the company declined. Apple has now lost its charismatic founder, so it'll decline too.
Forrester is an excellent research firm, and I have huge respect for its quantitative market research. But in this case I'm not buying its prediction, for a couple of reasons:
First, although it's accurate to say that Sony declined after the loss of Akio Morita, it's not clear that the company's decline was caused solely or even primarily by the loss of Morita. Here's a chart from Yahoo Finance of Sony's stock price since 1985:
The red arrow marks 1994, the year when Morita stepped down after suffering a stroke. Ignore the ridiculous spike in the middle caused by the Japanese economic bubble; the important point is that at its peak in 2007, 13 years after Morita left the company, Sony's stock price was double what it was when he left. The PlayStation, Sony's most vibrant tech product today, was started under Morita but is generally credited to Ken Kutaragi and his sponsor Norio Ohga, the man who succeeded Morita.
I have no doubt at all that Akio Morita was central to the building of Sony. But I think its decline stems from a lot more than just his departure.
In a similar vein, I am not at all persuaded that the success of Apple under Steve Jobs can be credited entirely to his presence. I worked there for almost all the time he was gone, and Apple without Steve had a lot of strengths -- a strong engineering team, a strong product management culture, great industrial designers and artists and marketing gurus, and a beloved brand with fanatical users. What the company didn't have, I think, was leadership capable of making all those strengths mesh. Some of Apple's work was wonderful (the Macintosh II and the PowerBook computers come to mind), and some of it was completely forgettable. Management was not able to get the company consistently united around a single set of long-term goals. Instead the company lurched from initiative to initiative, some of them pushed by outside consultants, many underfunded or contradictory. Apple's culture of passive resistance, created in part by Steve Jobs himself during his first time at the company, made the problems worse.
What Jobs brought to Apple when he returned, more than anything else, was focus. He committed Apple to a relatively narrow set of initiatives, and made sure everyone in the company got behind them. That let Apple's existing strengths shine through to the market. Jobs was able to rescue Apple because it was only partially broken.
Forrester's article depicts Apple under Jobs as a company of followers who waited to be given their marching orders from on high. That theory sounds reasonable if you don't know anyone who works at Apple, but I do. The folks I know there are team players, but by no means are they passive followers. I think the real risk is not that Apple without Jobs will drift, but that it may revert to its old bad habits. Will the company's management team continue to work together, or will it fall into passive resistance? Can Tim Cook enforce discipline without alienating the big talents (and big egos) scattered throughout the company? Do the managers themselves recognize the need to cooperate in order to keep Apple on top?
Forrester can't know the answer to that question. Neither do I. Yes, at some point Apple will decline; nothing lasts forever. But unless somebody develops the ability to read minds, we can't predict when Apple will come apart. And in the tech industry, if you don't know when, you don't know anything.
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