It is one thing to compete with Apple in India, a country that is the hottest smartphone market in the world. It is another to do so while being dubbed one of the worst CEOs ever, according to several polls. It is, of course, a whole different thing entirely to be the man to have allegedly given Steve Jobs his walking papers in 1985.
John Sculley announced a few days ago that he is launching a new phone brand called Obi in India. At a price range between $90 and $200, Sculley hopes that Obi's phones will lure premium phone buyers away from players like Samsung and Apple, and take the fight to local giants like Micromax and Karbonn.
This would not normally cause much of a flutter in the news business if the name "Sculley" didn't bring back such strong feelings. Most accounts portray former Apple CEO John Sculley as universally reviled not just for canning someone who turned out to be perhaps the biggest product and marketing genius the world has seen, but also for several missteps that led to his own firing in 1993 by Apple's board.
When Sculley did join Apple as CEO in 1983, he was supposed to act as, well, Obi-Wan Kenobi to Jobs' Luke Skywalker. Jobs, an acknowledged visionary, was apparently just too mercurial and ill disciplined to run things at the company in a mature manner, thought the board.
According to Apple lore, Jobs approached Sculley, a brilliant marketer who had proven himself by climbing up the ranks to become president of PepsiCo by launching famous strategies such as the "Pepsi Challenge". Jobs apparently told Sculley, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?"
Initially, according to reports, things went swimmingly. But then the cracks began to appear, followed by a major rupture big enough to be Silicon Valley's equivalent of the San Andreas Fault.
What followed is a matter of some contestation. Some say that Sculley lacked the one thing necessary to make a tech company in the Valley survive and do well; namely, product management skills. The lack of any technical abilities contributed to Sculley being named one of the worst CEOs ever in history by this publication as well as this one.
Apple fanatics will also undoubtedly point to Sculley's apparent unwillingness to license the Apple OS, as well as his decision to raise the price of the Macintosh when computer prices were falling at the beginning of the end of the old Apple. Tack on his serial failures in bringing out new products such as the Newton and CD players — both arguably visionary in their own right and ahead of their time — as well as the calamitous foray into the PowerPC ship, and many think he truly deserves to be on the aforementioned CEO list.
But Jobs doesn't get off easy in this tale, either. According to this archived Businessweek article, written in the mid-'90s, that documented the fall of Apple, a rigid Jobs wouldn't face the technical weaknesses of his products. For instance, the first Mac was "a design statement. Dazzling to look at, it was badly underpowered and lacked the expansion capability to fix that." After sales quickly stagnated, Sculley apparently suggested another version of the product, but Jobs refused and lobbied the board to turf Sculley out. Instead, he found himself out of a job and a company.
Sculley has his own version of events. According to this article by ZDNet's sister site CNET, the clash was the result of the Macintosh Office failure in 1985, which was widely criticized as being underpowered. Sculley says that Jobs went into a "deep depression".
"Steve came to me and he said, 'I want to drop the price of the Macintosh and I want to move the advertising, shift a large portion of it away from the Apple 2 over to the Mac," said Sculley in the CNET piece.
"I said, 'Steve, it's not going to make any difference. The reason the Mac is not selling has nothing to do with the price or with the advertising. If you do that, we risk throwing the company into a loss.' And he just totally disagreed with me," Sculley continued.
"And so I said, "Well, I'm gonna go to the board. And he said, 'I don't believe you'll do it. And I said: Watch me."
Decades later, Sculley says that he regrets the way things unravelled. "What I didn't really understand at the time was that tech products go through dramatic life-cycles, that products which are successful one year can go out of business the next year," he said. Sculley said he tried to re-engage with Jobs but Jobs never responded.
"I wish Steve and I hadn't had a falling out. I wish I had gone back to Steve and said, "This is your company, let's figure out how you can come back and be CEO." I wish I had thought of that. But you can't change history," added Sculley. This sounds heartfelt but Mac (or Jobs) fans will probably never forgive Sculley for crowning himself the chief technology officer of Apple in 1990, in a world that he admittedly never completely understood.
But that was then and this is now. Today, Apple is a global giant but an insignificant factor in India's smartphone wars, with not even 1 percent of share. And Jobs is longer around to innovate within the company and position it for where the action is, which is the developing world.
Sculley, on the other hand, will have his work cut out for him if he wants to take business away from local stalwarts or even global brands like Nokia, which is finally innovating for the Indian market with snazzy new devices at low cost with just another smartphone on the block.
Meanwhile, somewhere up there, Jobs is probably shaking his head in wry amusement at the huffing and puffing of these mere mortals, itching to get another crack at changing the world.
Maybe Sculley "firing" him was the best thing that ever happened to Apple.