Xerox PARC Legend Alan Kay Says Apple Is Dysfunctional, With Or Without Steve Jobs

AlanKay

Alan Kay is a bit of a legend at Apple. A computing pioneer, Alan Kay’s lab at Xerox PARC led Steve Jobs to commercialize the concept of a graphical user interface and a computer mouse, and Alan Kay’s philosophy that “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware” is one of Apple’s core principles.

But Kay doesn’t think much of Apple these days, and in fact, seems to think the company has always been broken.

In an interview with occasional Cult of Mac contributor and computer historian David Greelish asking about what he thought about Apple without Steve Jobs, Kay explains the problem with companies like Apple that seemingly depend upon one charismatic leader to pull it all together:

As far as Apple goes, it was a different company every few years from the time I joined in 1984. There was Steve [Jobs] — an elemental force — and then there was no Steve. There was John [Sculley]. He was pretty good, but the company grew so fast and started getting very dysfunctional. And then on downhill.

One way to think of all of these organizations is to realize that if they require a charismatic leader who will shoot people in the knees when needed, then the corporate organization and process is a failure. It means no group can come up with a good decision and make it stick just because it is a good idea. All the companies I’ve worked for have this deep problem of devolving to something like the hunting and gathering cultures of 100,000 years ago. If businesses could find a way to invent “agriculture” we could put the world back together and all would prosper.

Kay’s a fascinating and nuanced guy, so this is really food for thought.

The idea that Apple needs a charismatic leader to surive is one we’ve heard before. It’s too early to tell how Apple’s fortunes will fare in a post-Jobs world, but I think it’s hard to argue against the idea that Apple is in a period of upheaval and transition interally now, largely as a result of Jobs’s death. A company which has, at the moments of its greatest success, always been guided by Jobs’s “force of nature” now has a charisma vacuum within it: Tim Cook is a great logistics guy, but he’s not a captivating presence.

From the outside, it seems as if Scott Forstall and Jonny Ive spent the greater part of the year after Steve Jobs’s death warring over who would fill the charisma vacuum that Steve Jobs left behind. Jonny Ive has won, and it seems as if Apple might be starting to get back on track when it comes to the innovation we expect from Cupertino.

But only time will tell, and if so, what happens to Apple when Jonny Ive leaves? Charismatic leaders can sometimes make you drink the poison Kool-Aid.

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  • nefan65

    Appears to be a case of “Talking just for the sake of talking”…

    The guy was at Apple almost 30 years ago. He missed the good times, and now he’s bitter. He also looks like a fish eyed freak.

  • daov2a

    Mr. Kay makes an excellent point. Any company that needs an extraordinary, charismatic leader in order to function properly is not a good or stable company. A company that has multiple leaders in every area that are capable of being autonomous and do not need micro-managing is a good and strong company.

    Only time will tell if he is correct. With Woz’s criticisms of Apple combined with this one, it is hard to decide which Kool-Aid to drink.

  • bdkennedy

    Because taking a company from bankruptcy to the biggest company in the world within 15 years is broken?

  • MrsCleaver

    Alan Kay is, or was, a visionary. Many of his ideas were incorporated into various Apple products, and his influence is not to be understated. However, he seems to have joined that small club of former Apple employees who find it easy to fault the work of Steve Jobs and the company he built.

    For me, as it regards Alan Kay, it sadly boils down to this: if he could have actually realized and brought the Dynabook to market, he surely would have. As it is, his vision of a small, powerful, hand-held computing device—one that more than any inspired so many Apple designs—remains little more than a mockup or two, and some blueprints.

    Bash how you will, and say what you want, but Apple is a juggernaut. It’s products please tens of millions for more than their ability to return profits. Apple has changed peoples’ lives for the better, and of course, not without the ideas of people like Alan Kay.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his girlfriend and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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