John Sculley, path dependence, and the Great Man theory

The explosion of commemorations after Steve Jobs’s retirement and untimely death has focused on his intense and demanding management style, his infusion of aesthetic sensibility into the world of computing, the remarkable success-exile-triumph arc of his career, and most of all on the transformative impact of the innovations he shepherded to market. From NPR to the BBC, from China to Europe, and from one end of the business and tech Internet to the others, it was all Jobs all the time for a couple of weeks. This treatment left no doubt that Jobs was a Great Man.

The man who fired Jobs from Apple and sent him to Medina–whoops, make that NeXt and Pixar–was John Sculley. Sculley is now treated as a definitively Not Great Man, and his own comments on his times with Jobs have, for the last several years, been appropriately humble. I myself have pointed in class to specific decisions he made (and rationales he offered) that were offenses to economic theory and business strategy.

And yet Sculley’s decisions have shaped today’s computing environment as profoundly as Jobs’s.  Read the rest of this entry »

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Given recent events, I think a tribute to Steve Jobs is also warranted.  Be sure to check out the Bloomberg/Businessweek special issue on Jobs – it’s beautifully designed. It features some nice articles, for example Google’s Eric Schmidt talking about his interactions with Steve Jobs.

And, since it’s sort of related: check out Russ Coff’s 2010 SMJ piece on ‘the coevolution of rent appropriation and capability development.’ Russ’s article uses the case of the Apple iPod to illustrate key points.