Steve Jobs’ Greatest Failure

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Jobs Apple logoMuch has been written about Steve Jobs – he was the visionary with the prescience to anticipate consumer needs, the genius who could fuse design and technology with an elegant simplicity.

His successes were significant and well-documented. But Apple users are living with his greatest failure right now.

That failure? The inability to build a company that could sustain excellence in his absence.

As an Apple user, I speak from experience. Currently, I’m saddled with an iPhone 6 that won’t sync music properly. I don’t do much in my life without music, and as a heavy user, music is the only reason I paid $400 for the iPhone model with the most storage, 128GB.

But iTunes and the iPhone don’t play well together, even though they should. In my case, when attempting to sync music with the iPhone, iTunes registers files that do not exist.

Below is what iTunes claims is the usage on my iPhone at the time of this writing. The small purple and green bars are Photos, Apps and Documents & Data, with a combined usage of less than 2GB. There is no music on my phone, as I removed it while troubleshooting. The huge yellow bar is simply called “Other.” So iTunes claims I have over 67GB of “Other” usage. To put that in perspective, 67GB is the equivalent of having about 87,000 photos on your phone. Of course, since iTunes thinks this phantom usage is real, I can’t use those GBs for other things, like… my music.

iPhone usage Jan19


The net effect: In the 4 months that I’ve had my iPhone 6, I’ve rarely been able to use more than about half of the storage I paid for, due entirely to Apple’s flawed systems.

A simple Google search reveals that many other users are experiencing an identical issue. Here’s a representative comment from a discussion board:

Apple Discussion Board quote

As the last sentence of that comment suggests, the solution most often proposed by Apple service reps to this issue is a full restore – resetting your phone as brand-new. If you’ve been through a restore, you know that it takes many hours to return all apps to their previous functionality. Apple is thus being far too presumptuous with its users’ time.

This may point to a much larger problem. In the last week of December, an American Customer Satisfaction Index study revealed that Samsung has moved ahead of Apple in the handsets category. A Forrester study of customer satisfaction with tech companies showed that, just from 2013 to 2014, Apple fell behind Samsung, Sony and – horror of horrors! – Microsoft.

It’s tempting to stand in awe of Apple’s market cap. But declining satisfaction does not bode well for its future. Apple famously crossed the $700B market cap threshold for the second time in late November. In the eight weeks since, Apple’s market cap has plunged by more than 10%.

In his excellent book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins warns us of charismatic leaders who fail to set up the company’s next generation for success. Though I’m not absolving current Apple leadership of its responsibility, I fear that, despite his many gifts, Jobs was this type of leader.

Jobs’ famously fastidious nature resulted in a company that once owned the turf of “it just works.” But that fastidiousness apparently departed the company with Jobs and wasn’t truly ingrained in the culture. If Apple’s success hinged entirely on Jobs’ presence, what is his legacy really? What will Apple be five years from now?

The lesson? For those of us that lead companies, it is our responsibility to create sustainable success for our organizations. These are matters of culture, of strategy, of values, of processes. This is work that only leadership can do. It is what separates real value creation from temporary spikes.

Don’t be drawn in by celebrity or hipness or flash. The true measure of a leader is in what he or she does today to ensure the health of the enterprise years from now.

Here’s hoping Apple returns to its former glory, before it’s too late.

Apple users, have you noticed a similar decline in the performance of Apple products?  Users, do you agree with my assessment regarding Jobs?  Please share your thoughts in a comment below.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2015 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.


2 Replies to “Steve Jobs’ Greatest Failure”

  1. Hei, I have a question about this: “he was the visionary with the prescience to anticipate consumer needs”.
    I had the impression that he happened to have the same pressing consumer needs like a large number of other peoples as well and then he started to do something about it, while everybody else was just complaining. So is it really prescience? Or is it just, well, coincidence and synchronicity, in sync?

    I understood that he himself was not satisfied with what was on the market and he had the urgent desire to have something better (just like others as well), but he took of to build it.
    Wouldn’t “desire-driven” be a better description then prescience? It’s also more encouraging for people who want to accomplish something. They just need to think about something that they are really dissatisfied with and then come up with an improvement…

    1. Terrific question, Joseann, and thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Many, many businesses have their roots in a frustration that someone took it upon themselves to solve. When enough other people share that frustration and believe in your solution, you have a viable business idea. I believe that “frustration-solution” equation – or, as you put it, “desire-driven” – is no doubt at play within the walls of Apple and other great innovators.

      At the same time, though, I think it takes prescience to create something as simple and intuitive as the iPod. Certainly, consumers wanted a smart portable music player. But Apple’s genius in the way they brought that to life – a “simple elegance” – I believe represents an unusually forward-looking stance: “We’re going to design this thing, and we’re going to do it so well that the market comes with us.”

      Innovation can come from many sources. I think, in this case, the answer may be an “and-both.”

      Thanks again for your comment!

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