I predicted Apple would die: “Wake up and smell the toast”

It was 1996. Gil Amelio had just taken over Apple Computer. My job at Forrester was to predict the future. I was certain that Apple would crater and I said so in print.

Steve Jobs had introduced the Lisa and then, the insanely great Macintosh, in 1984. It made a hell of an impact, and eventually prodded Microsoft to produce Windows. Versions 1 and 2 of Windows sucked, but by 1992, Windows 3.1 came out. Windows 3.1 was usable, and nearly everybody in business had a PC.

But after John Sculley forced out Jobs, Apple lost its way. By 1994, former chip guy Gil Amelio moved from the Apple board of directors into the CEO position.

I first encountered Amelio at a public event in 1995 or 1996 where we both presented. (I think it was the Boston Computer Society, but I couldn’t swear to it.) He was awful. He rambled, couldn’t get to the point, and appeared to have no insight into the state of the computer business.

A little after that, he and his people came to visit Forrester Research. Since we advised people on corporate computer use — an environment where Macintoshes were about as common as black tulips — this was mostly a curiosity. Apple had a foothold among creative types and in education, but it was losing incredible amounts of money.

Amelio bumbled his way through the Forrester briefing without articulating a plan. We all listened carefully, and afterwards, it was my job to write up the meeting.

I can’t remember the title of my brief, but I know the heading of the second section was “Wake Up and Smell the Toast.” I, and everyone else who’d been to the briefing, were certain that Apple was done. It had no compelling products, no chance to succeed in corporate settings, no useful product plan, and dwindling supplies of cash.

This was the right prediction. It was clear that it would take a miracle to save Apple, and we could see no miracle.

Consider for a moment the things that had to happen for Apple to succeed, and eventually become the trillion-dollar company it now is.

Amelio had to acquire a new operating system, since the MacOS had reached its limits. After considering other options, he acquired NeXT in early 1997. The CEO of NeXT was Steve Jobs.

Jobs, now back at Apple, had to convince the board to oust Amelio and put him in as “interim CEO.” That happened in July 1997.

Jobs terminated nearly everything at Apple, including the failed Newton tablet, and put all of the company’s energies into one very strange looking new computer called the iMac, which came in multiple candy colors. It looked like this:

It sold. Apple created PowerBook laptops. They sold. The company was no longer in danger of bankruptcy. In 2000, Jobs became the non-interim CEO.

In 2001 he introduced the iPod. Forrester panned it (that time, it wasn’t me). But it turned out to be a turning point, the first intelligent device other than PCs and game consoles to catch on, with a pioneering companion software product, iTunes.

In 2007 he introduced the iPhone. Forrester loved it, but wondered if he could wrestle control of the mobile phone world away from the mobile operators. Jobs did.

Now Macintoshes, iPhones, and iPads are in consumer hands and corporate offices around the world. There are a lot of reasons why Apple is now a trillion dollar company, but the main one is great design and great marketing that persuades people to pay a premium for products built from commodity components.

I was wrong in 1996. But I made the right prediction. If Gil Amelio had remained in charge, Apple would be dead. If Jobs hadn’t returned and launched a cleverly designed new product, Apple would be dead. None of these things were anywhere near predictable in 1996. If a time traveler had come back from 2018 to 1996 and told me that Apple would have a trillion dollar valuation, I would have said, “That is extremely unlikely, and would have to be the result of an incredible series of virtually impossible events.”

And I would have been right, too.

Anyone who tells you they knew Apple was destined for success in 1996 is fooling themselves. Only one person could see that path to success.

Steve Jobs.

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  1. I still don’t get how a company selling substandard products for premium prices with zero focus on customers and multiple missteps and a double-dip of an egotistical idea maniac succeeded, but they have. It’s the anomaly of doing almost everything wrong, but still succeeding. Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.