Should We Pay Attention to Former Apple Executives?

March 20th, 2013

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said nice things about Android smartphones, some people wondered whether that was the unkindest cut of all. After all, he was there at Apple when it all began. Well, even though Wozniak is reportedly still on Apple’s payroll and all, he officially left Apple in 1987, after Steve Jobs exited the company. He wasn’t even directly involved in the creation of the Macintosh.

In other words, he had absolutely nothing to do with any current Apple hardware or software product, except to make a few pointed comments from time to time. Absolutely nothing. His efforts since departing Apple, aside from philanthropy, haven’t had near the impact. He is certainly a skilled engineer and was instrumental in starting the PC revolution, but what has he done lately? And does his background make him a marketing wizard? I don’t think so.

But Woz isn’t the only one. Take Guy Kawasaki, a voracious self-promoter who was an Apple evangelist from 1983 to 1987, and one of the people originally responsible for marketing the Mac. In 1990, he wrote a best-selling book, “The Macintosh Way,” which promised to reveal the marketing expertise he reportedly demonstrated during his brief tenure at Apple. All right, he did return to the company as an “Apple Fellow” in 1995, but it’s hard to credit him with anything Apple did after Steve Jobs returned to the company. Besides, it’s not as if the Mac became the number one best selling personal computer or anything. So when Kawasaki presumes to tell us what Apple should do, why should we listen to him?

But what about Jean-Louis Gassée?

Well Gassée had a more direct involvement with still-existing products at Apple. After a stint at HP in the early 1980s, he became head of Apple France, and was later selected to lead Macintosh development by then-CEO John Scully. That, by the way, was the very position Steve Jobs held before he left the company.

Gassée had a public presence with Apple, and even appeared on stage to present new products. But his tenure was short-lived. At one point, rumors evidently arose that Gassée was being considered for Scully’s job. But in 1990, Gassée was forced to leave Apple supposedly because Scully and the board weren’t satisfied with his performance in delivering new products.

The following year, Gassée started Be Inc., a company that hoped to establish a new personal computing platform that included a state-of-the-art operating system and new hardware. The BeOS attracted a cult following, and the hardware, known as BeBox, consisted of a line of dual-processor computers. But the venture never went much beyond the core set of followers, though it came close.

In 1996, Apple was in deep trouble, struggling to make progress on a long-stalled project to replace the aging Mac OS with something called Copland. But the effort floundered, and Apple’s executives looked outside the company for a solution. At one point, it appeared Apple was about to acquire the BeOS for a price estimated as high as $200 million. Gassée supposedly wanted $275 million, but Apple, instead, chose to buy NeXT from Steve Jobs for $429 million. It was the right move at the right time, and Gassée’s venture essentially went nowhere after that.

Despite this history, when Gassée blogs about what Apple should do, the media takes him seriously. In recent days, he’s suggested that Apple hire an outside PR firm to handle the day-to-day interactions with the media. Apple did just that for years, until all corporate PR was consolidated within the company some years back.

What Gassée suggests is more outreach by Apple via a powerful PR agency, with journalists getting regular releases and white papers, and, when needed, corporate statements about issues that might impact the company. He clearly feels that Apple would have been able to better counter the negative commentary from the media and Wall Street that has caused the stock price to tank.

While he may have a point, I fail to see why Apple’s own PR people can’t do the very same thing. If they are overworked, hire more people. It also seems as if Apple has, of late, become a tad more aggressive in reaching out to the media. Consider the recent interviews from marketing VP Phil Schiller ahead of the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4. The marketing message has also been enhanced on Apple’s site, and in a new round of TV commercials.

Now you don’t have to be a former Apple executive to suggest that Apple might have done more to take control of the negative messages before things got out of hand. You could blame all that on Tim Cook, since that’s where the buck stops. But it’s also true that Steve Jobs wasn’t a regular fixture in press interviews either. Except for a media event, or an AllThingsD conference, he only did a very few short interviews to a few selected media outlets when Apple had something to sell. Sure, the one liners he delivered in occasional emails to Apple customers got wide coverage, and maybe Tim Cook should increase his messaging in the same fashion. He’s certainly capable of pithy comments.

In the end, however, if a statement about what Apple should do comes from an executive who had nothing whatever to do with the company’s recent actions and success, why take those words seriously? Sure, a stint in Apple’s executive suite might give someone more apparent credibility, but that hasn’t helped Ron Johnson at J.C. Penney, nor did it help John Rubinstein at Palm.

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9 Responses to “Should We Pay Attention to Former Apple Executives?”

  1. Articles you should read (March 20) …. says:

    […] “Should We Pay Attention to Former Apple Executives?: When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said nice things about Android smartphones, some people wondered whether that was the unkindest cut of all.” — “The Tech Night Owl” ( […]

  2. filecat13 says:

    Let’s not forget John Scully, who often gets quoted as a guy who has something to say about what Apple should do.

    That’s a quartet of tuneless singers, none of whom has much to sing about, as you’ve correctly pointed out. I might have been less kind than you, but then I’m not a journalist, so I may lack some discretion.

    Wozniak: out of touch and off planet Earth: “Oh look, space monkeys!”
    Kawasaki: self-promoting, pandering do-nothing: “Where’s my check?”
    Gassee: almost brilliant, almost successful, almost credible, always short: “Missed it by that much!”
    Scully:obtuse, unimaginative, dangerously incompetent: “We need more, because more is more.”

  3. Dan says:

    Gassee’s posts have range beyond Apple and are both well written and interesting. Whether or not he is an “expert” that needs to be “listened to” doesn’t matter much to me. He does have a silicon valley and international perspective. Do his posts represent a gospel that must be given undivided attention, no. But then I can’t think of anyone who would fall in that category.

    Woz and Scully have no value that I can see.

    • @Dan, Gassée’s own business efforts haven’t been very successful. He was let go from Apple, and Be Inc. floundered. When he suggests Apple needs to hire a PR agency to reach out and take a more aggressive stance, he may have a point. But that can be done within the existing corporate PR structure.


  4. Lazer Wolf says:


    To be honest, I think your analysis just misses the real issue. It’s not so much that these former Apple employees have their opinions and share it, or that they are sometimes interesting, it’s that the bulk of the tech media puts out the equivalent of celebrity gossip. These tech media outlets rehash the same story with minuscule differences and varying levels of outrageous headlines! This creates an echo chamber that gives artificial weight to certain people like those you have mentioned and makes us take notice of them. Should we take notice? Maybe sometimes. But with the way the tech media amplifies anything Apple, we really have no choice but to notice.

    For the most part, if you are interested in Apple technology and like to keep up with what they are doing you have to prepare yourself for this gauntlet of carnival barkers. The bottom line is that current state of the tech media is primarily to blame for the constant barrage of quotes and stories from former Apple employees. The more their words are rehashed, the more weight they appear to carry.

    As for the specific people you mention in the article only Gassee and Woz carry any weight. Gassee is knowledgeable about the tech industry and does have some insight into how Apple operates. His columns are clearly his opinion based on his beliefs and understanding of the tech scene which includes having worked for Apple. But if he hadn’t worked at Apple, his column would still be quality work, in my opinion. But maybe we wouldn’t see as many links to his writings.

    As for Woz, well, he is a sentimental Apple favorite. You know he is going to be honest and give you a great quote from the perspective of the tech geek, meaning the perspective of a person who loves to have the ability to sideload a custom ROM on their smartphone. With Woz, after one person interviews him, 50 other “journalists” have fabulous headlines about how Woz thinks Android DOMINATES Apple! It’s not his fault, it’s the echo chamber, and you’re stuck paying attention.

    • @Lazer Wolf, I have written a number of times about the media echo chamber. Here, I’m referring to the fact that the phrase “former Apple executive” seems to give someone a lot more credibility than they might otherwise deserve.


  5. Lazer Wolf says:

    @Gene Steinberg

    Hi Gene. I understand what you are saying. My point was that as an average educated reader, someone not in the tech game, the way I interpret the “credibility” you refer to is by how often someones words are spread (to an extent). You see Woz’s or Gassee’s thoughts propagated from multiply places and you think, “Gee. this guy must really know something.” Hence credible. The implication being that the tech media is knowledgeable and professional enough to determine who are experts and whose words should be given more weight. However, if the main reason these people get more media play is because of the “former Apple executive” epithet, then it goes back to what I said about the tech media.

    The other reason I brought up the media echo chamber, which you have discussed on several occasions, is because the same thing happens for those Wall Street/Investor prognosticators. Based on how much media churn they get, you’d think they were the most credible source of information on the Apple supply chain and product releases next to Tim Cook himself. And if you had raised the same question of credibility for those Wall Street/Investor prognosticators, which you have in the past, the central thesis of your current article would still be spot on.

    Great article and thanks again for your thoughts.

    • @Lazer Wolf, Having already covered the media and Wall Street echo chamber on a number of occasions, it’s not necessary to keep stating the obvious. I think my regular readers know where this is coming from, and why the position of “former Apple executive” gives one an aura of credibility that may not be deserved.


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