A Visionary and His Limits

This month's letter from the editor.

Like many of our readers, I am an unabashed Steve Jobs fan. The cofounder of Apple Computer is not only a seminal figure in business but also a visionary, a dreamer, and one of the world's great product innovators. And I am a direct beneficiary of his genius. At home, I work and play on one of the best-designed computers ever made: an iMac. At work, I write and edit on an Apple PowerBook and use one of Jobs's flat-panel cinema screens as a monitor. In between, I'm plugged into an iPod, listening to Coldplay, Martin Sexton, and Frank Sinatra.

Yet my relationship with Jobs and the company he created requires some explanation. That's because years ago—1987 to be exact—I helped write the memoir of the man who tossed Jobs out of the company he cofounded and loved. John Sculley—whom Jobs famously enticed from Pepsi to Apple with one of the most seductive lines ever delivered in business ("Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?")— was an extraordinary leader. He helped transform a then foundering and troubled Apple. Sculley saved it from sure extinction, just as Jobs would later rescue the company from likely bankruptcy or sale after making his triumphant return seven years ago.

But working as Sculley's collaborator, helping him tell his side of their painful and dramatic split, immediately put me on the dark side, the side of "the suit" long perceived to be Jobs's chief adversary. Truth is, I never felt comfortable there. Neither did Sculley, who always spoke with remarkable admiration of and respect for Jobs throughout my reporting and writing of our book, Odyssey. Even after their breakup, John was often wistful about the close partnership with Steve that he had forever lost.

For me, that book was an incredibly exciting assignment. I spent many months in Silicon Valley, interviewing hundreds of people, collecting astonishing stories about Apple's birth, childhood, and adolescence. I had engaging conversations with cofounder Stephen Wozniak and Mike Markkula, who drafted Apple's original business plan. In short, I interviewed just about everyone, from founders to early developers. Everyone except Jobs, because I was on the wrong side.

During those interviews, I gathered thousands of telling anecdotes. One of my favorites has to do with the time Jobs went with Sculley on a pilgrimage to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to visit one of Jobs's heroes: Dr. Edwin Land, the late inventor and founder of Polaroid Corp. The story is fascinating because it so thoroughly captures Jobs's mystical ability to visualize the future and his passion for bringing all of us there.

Sitting in Land's laboratory, Jobs found the great inventor and management thinker in a generous mood. "The world is like a fertile field that's waiting to be harvested," Land said. "The seeds have been planted, and what I do is go out and help plant more seeds and harvest them."

Riding back to a nearby hotel in a taxi, Jobs turned to Sculley and said, "Yeah, that's just how I feel. It's like when I walk in a room and I want to talk about a product that hasn't been invented yet. I can see the product as if it's sitting there right in the center of the table. What I've got to do is materialize it and bring it to life, harvest it, just as Dr. Land said."

Through the years, Steve has planted and harvested an orchard of plenty. It's the sole reason Apple isn't just another dead company in a growing high-tech graveyard.

So you might find it surprising to read this month's provocative cover story on Jobs. It explores a compelling paradox: Apple has been the most consistently innovative company in its industry and one of the most innovative product companies in the world. Yet, it has been unable to profit consistently from that envied record of innovation.

Aren't innovation leaders always supposed to come out on top? And what does Apple's track record say about innovation in general? We have some surprising answers to those questions in this issue.

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