Apple's ex-CEO on what drives Steve Jobs and how a superbrand was built

Interview: John Sculley on the early years of Apple and the tablet Cupertino was working on 20 years before the iPad...
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Interview: John Sculley on the early years of Apple and the tablet Cupertino was working on 20 years before the iPad...

Original Apple Mac

John Sculley said Steve Jobs wanted to make personal computing easy with the MacPhoto: Accretion Disc

John Sculley was famously tempted to leave PepsiCo and become Apple CEO after Steve Jobs asked him, "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?".

Sculley took the job in 1983, and while he may not have changed the world during his 10 years at the helm, he certainly shook Apple to its core.

Just a couple of years after Sculley joined the company, Jobs was fired from Apple, leaving Sculley in charge.

Under Sculley, Apple diversified its desktop PC range and moved into the laptop computer market. However, Sculley's time with Apple was marked by a number of overly ambitious R&D projects with runaway costs, such as developing the never-released Aquarius quad-core CPU and the Apple Newton PDA, and in 1993, the Apple board replaced Sculley on the back of falling profits.

In spite of Jobs' departure soon after Sculley joined, Sculley's enduring memory about his time with Apple is of Jobs' laser focus on design - the desire to cull clutter from interfaces and make Apple technology easy to use - as the company was getting ready to launch the first Apple Mac in 1984.

"Everything that was significant in Apple when I was there was really defined by Steve Jobs," he told silicon.com during a recent trip to London to speak during the Hult Education Talks, hosted by Hult International Business School.

Rather than looking to electronic products for the Apple aesthetic, Sculley recalls Jobs seeking to match the quality craftmanship of fine jewellery and the fit and finish of luxury cars.

From the sleek lines of the computer hardware through to the intuitive nature of the software, Sculley said Jobs believed in "controlling the experience end to end, so there would be no compromises".

"Steve's view was that you could make the personal computer incredibly simple to use," he said.

The singular focus on elegance and simplicity of design are the same ideals at the heart of the look and feel of the iPhone and the iPad today, Sculley said.

"You can see those same first principles that Steve created back in the early days of the Mac and the early days of desktop publishing are clearly those same first principles that are relevant [to Apple] today."

Selling the dream

As much as Apple's devices have won people over with their looks and simplicity, the company also owes much of its success to how it uses advertising.

Few firms inspire the same slavish devotion as Apple, which by marketing its devices as being in a class of their own has established itself as the ultimate aspirational brand.

The roots of the bold marketing strategy that led to today's Mac vs PC and "magical" iPad ads lie in the 1980s, when Sculley arrived at Apple from PepsiCo.

Jobs wanted Sculley to teach Apple the secrets of the success he had had as president of PepsiCo, where the Pepsi Challenge adverts he had masterminded had eroded Coca-Cola's sales lead over Pepsi.

"The reason I was recruited to Apple was that Steve believed that high technology [products], in this case PCs, were going to have to learn how to sell themselves the way that soft drinks sold themselves, and he was an admirer of what Pepsi had done to compete against Coke.

"I said to Steve at the time, 'Don't focus on the product, focus on the experience', which was everything that we did to build the Pepsi generation," he said.

Apple's first advert to sell the "experience" was the...

John Sculley Apple

Ex-Apple CEO John Sculley says Apple is so far ahead of everyone else - "it knows how to sell magic"Photo: Hult International Business School

...launch advert for the Apple Macintosh 1984. The ad depicts a Big Brother figure delivering a sermon via a giant screen that is interrupted when an athlete throws a hammer into the screen - symbolising how the Mac's originality would smash the orthodox view of what computers could do.

"The advertising was effective and it got tremendous attention for the Mac," Sculley said.

The ad became an iconic piece of marketing, whose emphasis on selling the experience of using an Apple product is still at the heart of the company's adverts today.

"Apple is so far ahead of everyone else - it knows how to sell magic. Everyone else is trying to sell technology," Sculley said.

The cost of being a trendsetter

In those early days of Apple, there were occasions when the company's ambition outstripped its capabilities and, according to Sculley, the company pushed the hardware on the original version of the Mac a bit too hard.

"When the first Mac came out, nearly all the processing power was used up in making the user interface work," he said.

"Once it ran the graphics on the screen there wasn't much left over to do anything particularly functional, so it took several more years before Moore's law enabled processors to be powerful enough for Macs to be able to do things that were really useful from a productivity standpoint."

And if the ambitions for the Mac were years ahead of their time, then the Apple Newton PDA was released more than a decade before computer processing power and telecommunications technology could fully deliver the handheld computer the Newton's designers set out to create in the early 90s.

"One of the things I've learned in high technology is that many people can see where the future is going. The hard thing is to predict exactly when it's going to happen and who's going to do it," Sculley said.

Even further ahead of the technological curve was the Knowledge Navigator computer, a concept device devised by Apple in the late 1980s.

The device was envisioned as a gesture- and speech-controlled tablet computer that accessed information linked by hypertext with the aid of software AI helpers, foreshadowing both the world wide web and modern mobile computing devices like the iPad.

"There's a transformational moment for everything - with...

...tablet computers, we were well ahead of the game with the Knowledge Navigator and the Newton, probably by 20 years.

"The technology clearly wasn't possible until just recently to give you the magical experience that one has with the iPad or iPhone."

Steve Jobs, Apple iCloud

Sculley believes Apple is in an extraordinary position with its recently launched iCloud service and well established lead in the tablet marketPhoto: Donald Bell/CNET

What the future holds for Apple

Sculley believes the iPad, together with Apple's recently announced iCloud service, will allow Apple to stay at the top of the tablet market for the forseeable future.

"I think Apple is in an extraordinary position. Other people have introduced tablets using the Android operating system but they haven't really caught up. Apple has just got further ahead," Sculley said.

"iPad 2 is a step beyond the original iPad, and I think it's really Apple's game to lose. I think Apple has a long stretch, maybe the next five to 10 years, without much competition."

What's next for Sculley?

Today Sculley is a partner in Sculley Brothers, the venture capitalist firm he helped to found, and spends his time investing in businesses and tutoring entrepreneurs.

Now in his 70s, Sculley said he has no intention of taking the reins at another company.

"I have no interest in being a CEO of any company today. What I do is mentor serial entrepreneurs and I have about half a dozen companies that I am involved with," he said.

"We are focusing on technology-enabled businesses at transformational moments. They are in different domains like healthcare, financial services and telecommunications services."

While the boardroom no longer appeals to Sculley, technology still interests him.

"One has to be really excited about what's going on with mobility," he said.

"Once you start to see true broadband availability for mobile devices and everything connected to cloud computers, it's going to change the way people interact socially, it's going to change the way we can do data-driven analytics for everything from consumer services to business services and revolutionise some of the highest cost parts of our economy such as healthcare."

The intersection between cloud-connected mobile computers and healthcare particularly interests Sculley, who believes devices that can wirelessly stream data about a patient's condition back to healthcare providers could reduce the cost of tackling chronic diseases like diabetes.

"One of the companies I'm involved with is looking at how we empower the patient to be responsible for their own healthcare," he said.

"Healthcare managed to miss the personal computer revolution, it really can't afford to miss out on cloud and mobility."

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