Article: A Cancer in the Clubhouse

by on October 30, 2012

Although there are certainly more important things going on in the world right now, even just the windiness and bitter cold that I’m feeling as a side-effect of Hurricane Sandy, the announcement of the shuffling of Apple’s executives and ultimate down-the-road dismissal of Scott Forstall does leave those who follow Apple to be curious about the cause.

While speaking with a friend about the situation, I drew the parallel to Carlos Zambrano, a former pitcher from the Chicago Cubs, who was most recently with the Miami Marlins. Zambrano was a talented baseball player, but there came a point where his antics, difficulty to work with others, and frequent episodes lent to the front office removing him. It’s one thing for a talented baseball player to have a personality, but once he starts creating problems without producing, it’s time to find someone new for the job. I can only speculate about what happened behind closed doors, but if the anecdotes and speculation are true, I think Apple did just that, albeit indirectly.

Forstall was often pegged as the understudy of Steve Jobs, even as profiled about a year ago by Adam Satariano for Businessweek:

In many ways, Forstall is a mini-Steve. He’s a hard-driving manager who obsesses over every detail. He has Jobs’s knack for translating technical, feature-set jargon into plain English. He’s known to have a taste for the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, in silver, the same car Jobs drove, and even has a signature on-stage costume: black shoes, jeans, and a black zippered sweater. (He favors Reyn Spooner Hawaiian shirts for normal days at the office.)

Forstall is like Steve in one other important way: He can be, in what some of his co-workers might call an understatement, a polarizing figure. He’s won the intense loyalty and allegiance of many of his underlings, and his engineers are among the hardest workers at the company. At the same time, according to several former Apple employees, a number of high-ranking executives have left the company because they found working with Forstall so difficult. That sentiment, it seems, has not been limited to fellow executives. One former member of the iOS team, a senior engineer, describes leaving Apple after growing tired of working with Forstall and hearing his common refrain: “Steve wouldn’t like that.” Similarly frustrated engineers from Forstall’s group have been hired by other Silicon Valley companies, according to one CEO. (Forstall and Apple declined several requests to comment; Steve Dowling, a company spokesman, says Apple does not cooperate on media profiles of its top executives.)

Still, there were reports of growing tension between Forstall and the other members of the executive team, and Om Malik brings up some good points that Tim Cook’s Apple is a much different company than a year ago:

I said it on Twitter: if you do your job and do it well, Cook is okay making you rich. If you mess up, don’t let the door hit you on the way out…Forstall forgot he was Steve’s guy, not Steve Jobs.

I’m not trying to discredit Scott Forstall, as he played a huge role in making the iPhone and iPad the innovative and successful products they are. I think with the less-than-satisfactory performance of Siri, which many felt was the headlining feature of the iPhone 4S, along with the somewhat-blow-out-of-proportion-but-still-bad failures of iOS 6’s Maps, Forstall was not delivering to balance out his personality.

Apple used to have people focusing on certain areas related to product lines, but with everything blurring, and the iOS lineup becoming as big as the Mac lineup, it makes more sense to focus on particular areas of innovation—software, services, and design. This will also ensure that the Mac, iPad, and iPhone are all on equal footing and hopefully create more communication within the company. That in of itself is a good thing, and I think Forstall’s dismissal is a bit of a situation of timing.

Matt Drance adds to this line of thinking and explains the different wording regarding John Browett, Apple’s short-lived head of Retail:

If this was only about Forstall being a problem, though, Apple would replace him. They clearly aren’t: the same press release explicitly states a search is underway to replace Browett. Not only is this a profound increase in responsibility for all three of these top executives, it’s a profound change in Apple’s organization going as far back as I can remember. There’s a long-standing pattern of separating watershed products important to the company’s future. The Mac and Apple teams. Mac OS X and Classic. The iPod division. iOS and Mac OS X. Suddenly, Tim Cook has pulled the reins in. Federighi owns software. Ive owns design. Cue owns services. Period.

Apple’s insane growth has pushed the situation over the edge. Too much size and separation inevitably bring politics, chaos, dropped balls, and finger pointing. None of those things are good for Apple’s products or customers. What we don’t know is whether burdening Cue, Federighi, and Ive even further will actually improve things. These guys already had enough to worry about. The worst case scenario is one where good leadership is spread too thin, and everything suffers. These are real growing pains.

Much like a baseball team trading a past-his-prime difficult player and never-had-a-prime-rookie for some prospects, there is a way to balance the news. Apple managed to both change responsibilities and remove Forstall and Browett all in one press release.

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