Amelio is a smart and impressive man, and he’s known for leading the team that developed the first commercial CCD sensors while working for Fairchild Semiconductor. He later became CEO of another chip manufacturer, National Semiconductor, where he was instrumental in restructuring the company and helping it to regain profitability. Amelio was there to give us confidence after Apple had been pretty bruised under John Sculley and Michael Spindler.
It wasn’t an encouraging visit.
I remember Amelio going on and on about the past problems at Apple, and how he was going to fix them. Click here for an Apple video of ‘the speech.’ He had a long list of fixes, but what was lacking was a coherent, compelling vision. He was going to do ‘something’ about the clones, finally replace System 7, and settle down all the politics and warfare between Apple divisions.
I had some specific questions, but he dodged them. It wasn’t convincing, and I wondered if Apple was going to pull itself out of what seemed a certain death spiral. After killing Copland and failing to make a deal for the BeOS, Amelio invested in NeXT and brought Steve Jobs back to Apple. At the end, Amelio got Apple back to making a small profit, after years of losing millions. It was a tiny victory, but certainly not a turn-around.
Amelio was finally ousted from Apple in July 1997 via a boardroom coup engineered by Jobs. The rest is history.
As someone who was there, I don’t think Amelio has gotten credit for what he did, only blame for what he couldn’t. So a few quick words in defense of Amelio might be in order.
Michael Spindler left behind an exceptionally broken company that was bleeding from all pores. Product quality sucked. Morale sucked. Inter-division fights and politics had many company operations almost at a standstill. The company proceeded to lose over a billion dollars in a quarter, which even today is a lot of money.
He fixed a lot of things. He staunched most of the flowing red ink. He restructured QA. He re-arranged the product lines away from Spindler’s ongoing disasters.
He stabilized the patient. He kept it alive until they cold transport the patient to a medical team that could patch it up properly. Without Amelio, Apple would not have lasted long enough to allow Steve to figure out how to turn it around.
One of the things he did was NOT buy Gassee’s company, Be. The general consensus on the inside of Apple at the time was Gassee felt Apple had no other options and got greedy on the pricing. True? I wasn’t there. But the expectation among all of us was that Be and Gassee was coming, and then all of a sudden it was off, and then all of a sudden, it was Steve. And the rest was history. It went against the common thinking of the time, and it can’t have been an easy decision to bring back a company founder and someone who clearly could make a play for control of the company (and ultimately did). It took some serious guts to make that call, and Amelio did it.
Now, there were things Amelio couldn’t do. He was a numbers guy. He tried to connect to the geeks and couldn’t. they never seemed to warm to him, and so he struggled to motivate and work on morale. He wasn’t really a product innovator; the national semiconductor background is as a jellybean semiconductor company where product generations are tied to fairly discrete improvements. The product like didn’t catch on fire as much as it used to, but it still didn’t inspire. He fought organizational intransigence but didn’t seem willing to put heads on stakes; he wanted to convince people to follow him instead of realizing that sometimes, you have to not give them the option of saying no, and killing them if they don’t obey.
That wasn’t a problem for Steve. And it was necessary; a few public beheadings in front of IL1, where division heads who played the “I outlasted the last two CEOs, I can ignore you until you’re gone” game suddenly went away, and all of the other people who were putting their own priorities ahead of Apple either straightened up or ran for the exits.
Steve was the reconstructive surgeon in Tokyo who did the reconstructive surgery and made the patient healthy and pretty again, but Amelio was the guy in the Mash tent near enemy lines who kept them alive long enough to get there. (and if I want to stretch this analogy into silliness, that would make Mike Spindler north korea, not Microsoft. IMHO. but I won’t go there).
So while Steve did a transformation on the company that I still marvel at (even as I watched it happening from the inside), that was possible because of the foundation that was laid before he returned, and that foundation was laid by Gil Amelio. And generally, he doesn’t get much credit for that. Mostly because he’s not Steve, and Steve is a hard act to follow (or precede).
And then there’s that great unanswerable question: what if they had bought Be instead of NeXT and brought in Gassee instead of Jobs? What would Apple be today? Or would it just be a memory of what once was?
If you really want to understand the impact of Steve Jobs on society, try to conceive of what our society would look like today if he had never been returned to Apple and never took it back over. Imagine a world without Apple, not just the products it ships, but the products it’s forced everyone else to innovate to keep upâ€¦.
This world would be a much different place, and it’s hard to see many scenarios where it would be better off without him.