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Apple under Jobs: from muck to mountaintop

Fortune's CEO of the Decade

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Steve Jobs has been crowned CEO of the Decade by the preeminent house organ of US corporate shillery, Fortune magazine.

Love him or hate him - or both - Jobs has earned the honor.

Fortune's panting panegyric covers the now-familiar saga of Jobs's rescue of Apple from the jaws of disaster, spiced with details of how he reshaped a rapidly sinking ship worth a mere $5bn in 2000 into today's $170bn juggernaut.

The article recounts Jobs's series of canny moves during the early part of this decade: streamlining Apple's discombobulated product line, pulling the plug on the cash-hemorrhaging Newton, snuffing out the money-losing Mac-clone experiment, shepherding the genre-transforming iMac, redefining music marketing with the iPod and iTunes Store, replacing Apple's creaky operating system with the (eventually stable) Unix-based Mac OS X, creating destination shopping with the 276-strong squadron of Apple retail stores, and more.

And then there was that other genre-redefining offering: the iPhone.

All smart - and successful - moves, to be sure. But what the article doesn't fully consider is what a smoldering train wreck Apple was when Jobs took it in hand. Although the company could have been fairly described in those dark days as having nowhere to go but up, that direction was far from clear in the late 1990's.

The speed with which Jobs was not only able to get Apple back on track but also to transform its image from laughingstock to acclaimed trend-setter has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.

How dysfunctional was Apple before Jobs's reappearance? This reporter's favorite story of those dark days was when he, as an editor for the late, lamented US Mac rag, MacUser, was enduring the now-famously excruciating Macworld Expo 1997 keynote address by Apple's then-CEO Gil Amelio. As thousands of attendees sat in stunned silence, a fellow editor turned to your reporter and mouthed two short words: "We're fucked."

He was right. Apple was adrift, and Amelio - despite his best behind-the-scenes reorganizational efforts - was failing to rally even the most fervent faithful.

In that valley of death through which Apple then slogged, the company's confused product line was stuffed with a gaggle of competing and often poorly engineered offerings, investor confidence was well-nigh nonexistent, its efforts to replace an aging proprietary operating system were writhing in agony, and its belated attempt at OS licensing was siphoning off revenue streams as more-nimble competitors such as Power Computing repeatedly introduced faster Macs more quickly than did Apple, and at lower prices.

That MacUser editor's succinct observation was right on the money - and, for Apple, that money was spurting from its system faster than blood from a slashed aorta.

Fast-forward to today, when Apple's stock hit a high of $195, its cash reserves total $34bn, and in its most recent fiscal quarter, it earned $1.67bn on sales of $9.87bn. All mid-Meltdown.

It would of course be a mistake to credit all of Apple's success to Fortune's CEO of the Decade. Cupertino is chock-a-block with talented engineers, designers, and coders. But Steve Jobs has been the man at the helm during Apple's unarguable resurgence.

Unfortunately - and equally unarguably - there's Good Steve and there's Bad Steve. Some say that Apple's rise has been due to Jobs's penchant for ruling with an iron hand. Others would replace "hand" with "fist".

The Valley abounds with Bad Steve stories - his dismissiveness, his "my way or the highway" imperiousness, and his ability to strike fear in the hearts of his underlings.

One story that nicely sums up Steveophobia was told by a former Apple employee on his blog: "...the level of paranoia was directly related to the closeness to the top floor at One Infinite Loop. I remember coming over to Steve's floor to pick up an executive VP for a briefing.  He quickly suggested a route off the floor that didn't go in front of Steve's office.  He explained the choice by saying it was safer."

Other such stories can be found in the mutitude of books dissecting Jobs and his managerial manner - Leander Kahney's Inside Steve's Brain, Alan Deutschman's The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, and Jeffrey Young and William Simon's iCon Steve Jobs, to name just a few.

That publication of that last book, in fact, led to an incident that well explains Steve Jobs's desire to control any and all situations that touch upon him personally. Before iCon's publication, as reported by The New York Times and others, it and all other books by its publisher, John Wiley & Sons, were not-so-mysteriously banned from Apple's retail stores.

Apple under Steve Jobs has become near-fanatical about controlling its messages - and it has no qualms whatsoever about limiting access to only those it vets as being of use to its message machine. Your reporter, for example, enjoyed access to Apple spokespeople for nearly 20 years - until he joined the staff of The Reg.

It can be argued, however, that extreme message-management as practiced by Jobs's Apple works greatly to the company's favor. As the Fortune story notes, one Harvard prof has estimated that by not providing sanctioned information about the iPhone before its 2007 release resulted in a media frenzy worth $400m in free advertising - a media manipulation now being repeated with the oft-rumored Apple tablet.

You may think of Apple's extreme secrecy as being a bit crazy, but we'd argue that "crazy like a fox" is a better analysis.

Savvy, mercurial, visionary, cruel, secretive, involved, insightful, manipulative, hard-charging, private, quixotic - these are all terms that could arguably be used to describe Fortune's CEO of the Decade.

One term, however, is indisputable: successful. ®

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