It was a typical interview set up in a hotel room converted into a temporary studio. Bright hot lights, a snakepit of wires and cables, sound and camera technicians scurrying around trying to make a boring room look like a million bucks, two chairs dramatically placed in front of each other and an army of PR people trying to micromanage everything. What wasn’t typical was the man who sat in front of me.
* In 1967, he joined Pepsi as a trainee. By 1977, he was the youngest president in the company’s history.
* In 1975, he triggered off the cola wars with Coke with a controversial taste challenge campaign and went on to make Pepsi a force to be reckoned with.
* In 1983, he was lured by Steve Jobs to join Apple. He was reluctant until Jobs asked him a legendary question, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
* Sales at Apple increased from $800million to $8billion under his management.
* But his greatest legacy and an impossible-to-remove tag line associated with his name is that he was the reason for the ouster of Steve Jobs from his own company, Apple, in 1985.
It was almost surreal to be sitting in front of him now. There’s a certain enigma attached to John Sculley and yet there also lies a fascinating story underneath. The John Sculley that one reads of in magazines, books and articles was very different from the one directly in front of me. An open-collar shirt, a sports jacket, perfectly ironed pair of jeans – he looked thinner and younger than his 75 years and way fitter than he looks in any of his photographs.
But it wasn’t only about his physical appearance, it was also about what he represents. A man who has made history and also been part of some of the most important touch points in the world of technology.
On the firing of Steve Jobs:
The first phone from John Sculley’s smartphone company, Obi. In a world full of low price-high spec phones can Obi’s Octopus hold up?
The S520 is great looking, but there’s nothing radical about it. The back is silver with white accents at the top and bottom. It has a 5-inch HD display with a 720p resolution, runs on Android 4.4.2 and has an Octa Core processor (its biggest USP at this price), dual SIM support, 8GB storage, an 8MP camera and 2MP front-facing camera and an 1800mAh battery.
Good enough? Well it’s entering a tough market. Hopefully, with John Sculley at the helm, this is just the start of great things.
He was quite clear that Steve Jobs was never fired, only asked to step down. And while the semantics of that can be debated, his next observation cannot. He admits it was a huge mistake, a visionary like Jobs should never have been removed!
He describes the Steve Jobs of that time as very different from the Steve Jobs who came back to come up with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. He describes him, at that time, as mercurial, stubborn and with very limited knowledge of the economics of running a business. He thinks the Apple board should have worked harder to make sure that he and Jobs could have carried on working together.
This of course is very different from what Sculley said three months after he had Jobs removed in 1985. At that time, he had said that Jobs won’t be missed and that “Apple has been running now for three months without any involvement at all by Steve Jobs, and the consensus at the company is that things are going much better since the reorganisation”.
On how the current Apple CEO Tim Cook is performing after Steve Jobs:
Sculley seems to think that Cook is doing a great job considering the difficult legacy he inherited at a difficult time. He considers Apple to still be a great company, that the next refresh cycle of all its products will bring in some huge numbers and that some future products have great potential.
He did admit though that expectations from Apple were always going to be of radical innovation and that it wasn’t possible to live up to those expectations every time. He counted Google and Amazon as being more cutting-edge companies currently.
On why John Sculley was associating himself with Obi, a low cost smartphone company and calling it the Next Big Thing: He said it’s all about timing. It is only now that a company can build a top-of-the-line, high-specs phone with no compromises at an astonishingly low price; as the technology was finally there to do that.
This was the phone for the next billion smartphone users. And those users would come from places like India, by graduating from a feature phone. He was very sure that Obi would become a premium international brand with flagship phones in every category at unbelievably low prices.
I did close by asking him what he thinks would have happened if Steve Jobs hadn’t been asked to step down. With a twinkle in his eye he said, “Very good things”. What those very good things would have been, we will never know!
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, August 3
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