Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Paradox of Apple Profitablity

Dave Winer suggests that products need egos to reach and maintain their potential greatness, of course pointing to Steve Jobs as the premier example. This got me thinking about the paradox of Apple's mega-success.

What is so rare is a consistent, eternal, unyielding devotion to product excellence. That was Steve Jobs. I am pretty confident that he would not release what he thought was a sub-par product, even if he thought it could be very profitable. Who else would do this? He aimed for greatness, not merely rich-ness.

Contrast this with Bill Gates, the embodiment of Microsoft. As Robert X. Cringely observed some years ago, Bill Gates has always been about winning ("a graceless win is still a win"). In business, this translates to profitability, not excellence. No Micro$oft product is ever improved unless there is a clear line of sight to the bottom line.
None of this matters to Steve Jobs. It took me a long time to figure this out, but he is quite content with the status quo [my italics]. That's because Steve's definition of success is different from Bill's, and from that of most other people in the computer industry. Success to Steve means getting his own way. That's all. Forget about market share. It's all about longevity and personal dominance.
So here comes the paradox. I remember reading Cringely's article at the time it was written, early 2002. At that time, the status quo was: Microsoft is huge, rich and dominant; Apple is off life support, and assured of a secure, profitable niche as a boutique computer maker. 10 years later, and how things have changed.

The paradox is that Steve Jobs uncompromising devotion to excellence was eventually rewarded with commensurate financial success. All it took was patience, lots of patience. Unfortunately in the business world, that kind of long leash is unheard of, unless your name is Steve Jobs.

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