Why Apple Should Look Back, Though Steve Jobs Never Did [Opinion]


Apple Museum 1

Last week, I published an opinion piece proposing that Apple open a corporate museum. It was also published on Forbes.com. The story started trending by Sunday evening. Then somewhat amusingly, it got buried first thing Monday morning by the wall-to-wall coverage of Ashton Kutcher, who’s to play Steve Jobs in an upcoming indie film. To be honest, I really wasn’t all that amused.

I have received a lot of feedback, and there are some additional comments at both forbes.com and cultofmac.com. Response in regard to an Apple Museum has been split, with about half being supportive, while the other half essentially says, “Apple would never do this, as they’re not about looking back.” Here are some examples:

“Apple never lives in the past. Why would they create something that does?”

“I’d prefer to see Apple’s history embedded within a larger context at the Computer History Museum. Placing this museum at Apple’s corporate headquarters would probably be, as Jobs thought, a distraction – their eyes must be focused on their future, not the past.”

“Apple had a museum. In 1996. When Steve returned, he trashed that crap (gave it to a university) because what the frick is the point of living in the past? The day Apple has another museum marks the beginning of the TRUE end, unless there’s another Steve out there somewhere that can save them.”

“I love the idea, but I don’t think Apple would ever go for it. I think they have an institutional bias against looking backward.” From an email by John Gruber, of daringfireball.net

“Only problem is Apple *never* seems to look backward. I was told by an Apple employee that they sent all of their old Macs over to Stanford.” From an email by David Sparks, of macsparky.com

“I have spoken to Apple and they are not interested . . .” From an email by Orrin Mahoney Vice Mayor, City of Cupertino, CA

Though I agree that Steve Jobs, and therefor Apple, were all about only looking towards the future, if Apple leadership continues to wholly embrace this sentiment, then a real irony is created.

At the company’s memorial to Steve on Wednesday, October 19th of last year, CEO Tim Cook shared a piece of advice that Steve gave him before his death on October 5th:

“Among his last advice he had for me, and for all of you, was to never ask what he would do. ‘Just do what’s right.’”

Steve Jobs wanted Apple to avoid the trap that he felt The Walt Disney Company fell into after the death of its iconic founder. He didn’t want any “What would Walt do?” kind of thinking. Steve wanted Tim and the rest of the Apple leadership team to make their own best decisions. Decisions based on current events, on current information and perhaps even based on instinct.

Steve didn’t want Apple to blindly keep doing things exactly the same way, without ongoing reevaluation. “What Would Steve Do?” (WWSD) thinking is not the way, and precisely why continuing to embrace a “never look back” policy is misguided for the new Apple leadership.

Apple’s new campus, (which will become a part of Steve Jobs’ legacy) is the perfect opportunity for Apple’s leadership to look back and celebrate the dent that it made in the universe. Steve Jobs left an indelible imprint on the company and his passing made him part of its history. Jobs’ legacy will live on forever, so why not create a space at Apple corporate headquarters to celebrate it?

The idea of not supporting a museum is in keeping with the old thinking. It’s like trying to behave as if Steve Jobs was still here. This one issue may be a sticking point for Apple’s leadership, but Tim Cook has already demonstrated that he does reevaluate past standard operating procedures, as evidenced with the recent dividend announcement. When he announced it, he emphasized that Apple’s primary focus was on innovative products, and that he believed Apple’s future is bright.

After I posted my article, I emailed the link to every board member at Apple. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t hear back from any of them. It is possible one or a couple of them might have actually looked at it. Some of them may even be considering the idea, but I understand if they can’t publicly comment on it. I hope at least one member of the leadership team has read it. If just one member embraces new thinking, and could become an advocate for the idea, it might get realized.

One of the arguments that I make in the article is that:

“I know I’ll want to visit this campus one day and I’m sure even more fans would want to as well. People like architects, artists, students, tourists, and the just plain curious. The new campus will become a mainstream destination and Apple needs to realize this, and more importantly, embrace it.”

In the video where Steve Jobs presents the new campus to the Cupertino City Council, it’s interesting when he responds at 14:40 with:

“Thank you, I think we do have a shot of building the best office building in the world, and I really do think architecture students will come here to see this. I think it could be that good.”

This is why I believe it’s very important for Apple leadership to embrace the idea that this new campus will also be an attraction in and of itself. They can react to that in the future, or own and control the experience now by planning and building for it.

I had a very nice email exchange with Orrin Mahoney, the Vice Mayor of the City of Cupertino. In one email he stated:

“I have spoken to Apple and they are not interested, but I am trying to put together a coalition of interested parties in Cupertino. They include the Rotary Club of Cupertino, the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce, the Cupertino Historical Society, and the City of Cupertino. We have had preliminary discussions with the Computer History Museum, here in Silicon Valley.”

I think this idea is admirable, but with all respect to Mr. Mahoney, I can’t agree that this approach is the way to proceed. It’s not really an issue for the City of Cupertino, it is something that Apple has to do internally. They can’t make Apple create a museum, and I wouldn’t want to visit the City of Cupertino’s Apple museum. I want to go see that awesome new campus and visit the official Apple Museum. My little opinion pieces may not have a lot of power, but this is possibly the only way to spark the imaginations of Apple’s leadership team.

Lastly, here’s a great example of a corporate museum, where the company is all about ongoing innovation, but yet honors it’s great past. They are much older than Apple, but in terms of cultural impact, I’d say the two companies are approaching equal stature. Again as I said in my article, this is also an effective extension of branding:

Mercedes-Benz Museum

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting update too. With my second article, I emailed every board member again, and I actually heard back from Phil Schiller:

“I don’t think this is a good idea for Apple. We are focused on inventing the future, not celebrating the past. Others are better at collecting, curating, and displaying historical Items. It is not who we are or who we want to be.”

I quickly replied with:

“Thanks for your reply. Please do one more thing to possibly put it into a different perspective, have a look at Mercedes’ museum (in Flash, yuk, sorry). Here is an example of an innovative company, very forward thinking, but they also embrace and celebrate their past. It uses its heritage to show that it has always been innovative and forward looking–ahead of its time in every era. Its an inspiration to employees, not an excuse to rest on laurels.

Have a good weekend and great to hear from you.”

Then after thinking more about it, about 45 minutes later I had an epiphany, so I shot him off one more email:

Subject: Oh no, I think I’ve given you the wrong imagery

“If you’re indulging me and reading this, then I just want to say that the word “museum” isn’t the best. I wish I had not used it and found a better alternative. The Mercedes Museum makes the matter worse, because it’s given you the impression that what I suggest is some large space with every device and computer that Apple has made represented in it.

What I mean primarily is a public visitor’s center, with a space that tells Apple’s story. A gallery for Apple’s story, where the history of the people that started it, grew it, perhaps even failed it is told. Not a big collection to be managed. I think the Mercedes Museum is great, but that would not be right for Apple, instead it does demonstrate a healthy attitude by Mercedes-Benz in celebrating and embracing their past. Steve Jobs will soon only exist in Apple’s past.

Thank you Phil.”

This is a guest post by David Greelish, a computer historian and president of the Atlanta Historical Computing Society. It was originally published here. Greelish is a lifelong fan of Apple. He has been one for most of his adulthood, going back to 1986. The Macintosh has been a core part of his life, and has played a critical role in his creativity, and in his professional and personal work. He is a computer historian, author and produces podcasts. His interest in general computer history arose from his interest in personal computer history, and that arose from his interest in Apple’s history. All of that was sparked by his interest in the history of his first real computer, the Apple Lisa.

  • mr_bee

    This just reads like a sad vanity article. Why can’t you just take “no” for an answer? Who are you to say that Apple “has to do this” ?

    The author comes across like an self-important, persistent, annoyance. All the people he talked with at Apple had excellent reasons for not wanting to do this. Shouldn’t that be enough? It’s their party after all.

    If I was one of the executives he was pestering I would go out of my way to ensure that this museum never happens just out of spite at the sheer rudeness and temerity of the author.

  • iHKDesign

    Again, no. You are wrong. Not looking in the past is part of Apple’s DNA. Building a museum would encourage looking in the past and thinking “what would Steve do”. It doesn’t matter whether you think it would be “cool” or “fun” for yourself. Apple shouldn’t and won’t do it because it would be bad for the company. Phil Schiller was right. You need to drop this now. You should have dropped this in the beginning.

  • JDW

    Mr. Greelish, although I don’t share your exact same enthusiasm for a “historical product display” at an Apple Visitors’s Center (mainly because I live in Japan and therefore would almost never get a chance to see it), I did enjoy your article. But as a man who prefers to think and do the opposite of what “the crowd” does, I therefore wish to cast my vote of support FOR your idea. Many in the uber “go Apple” crowd these days annoy me tremendously.

    I’ve been a Mac lover since my first home computer — a Macintosh 128k in 1984. And despite having been a member of the Apple faithful for all these years, I’ve always been one to always think for myself and never defend Apple in excess. I criticize Apple when they are wrong, and I’ve taken issue with Steve Jobs many times in the past. The scary thing about some in the Apple faithful (such as the two previous posters here) is that they will defend anything that Apple does or says claiming, “Apple is such-and-such, and that has made them great, and that will never change.” So because of Apple’s past success (including AAPL share prices), and because of all the books they’ve read about Steve Jobs and Apple (which I too have read), they somehow feel that Apple is on a never ending winning streak, and by stating the party line at Apple they somehow feel they too will be perpetual winners themselves. It’s the “I’m right, you’re wrong” syndrome on steroids when they dash to pieces anyone they perceive as differing from the party line at Apple. Such thinking sends shivers up my spine!

    The amusing thing about the previous two posts is that Mr. Bee tears you down for being “self-important,” and yet most people who post comments under articles (yes, myself included) do so because they feel their words are important enough to be etched in digital stone. So for a poster to cast a stone at this article over self-importance would be to have that stone turn full circle and smash the poster right smack in the face.

    As to Apple having unalterable “DNA,” I am not so sure. Corporations may be started and made great by a single entity, but those human entities die in time, as did Steve Jobs. Times change and so do companies. If the underlying philosophy is sound, we would expect that philosophy to remain with us for a long time, but can we say it should remain “eternally”? Furthermore, even human DNA changes over time. And while some of those mutations turn out to be cancerous, some changes are silent. The point is that DNA does not remain perpetually unchanged, even in the human body. It’s important to keep in mind that corporations are living entities created by human beings who live, change and die.

    Steve Jobs didn’t want Apple to become like Disney, always looking about at the past for inspiration on future product ideas (“wondering what Walt would have done”). Steve told his chosen leaders at Apple to think for themselves. And yet, if they always do exactly what Steve did, how is that different than reflecting back on Walt Disney and asking what Walt would have done? (Answer: it isn’t.)

    There are big risks associated with thinking outside the box that Steve Jobs created at Apple. But the fact remains that such thinking was sanctioned by Steve prior to his death. And sometimes big changes are needed in the long run to keep a company going strong. Perhaps it could be argued that we don’t need “big” changes now, but the fact is that the Jobs-sanctioned “think outside the box” should allow Apple staff to do things that Steve never would have done previously.

    A “historical product display” at an Apple is not something that Steve would have liked at all. But so what?


  • technochick

    I disagree that Apple SHOULD do it. If they want to, great. But they are in no way obligated and shouldn’t be made to feel that way.

  • Brianna Wu

    I’m also against this, and let me tell you why.

    Apple has always been a spectacle for the fans, but it’s really gotten to the point of dangerously distracting theater.

    I think we’ve all seen the way rational Apple fans can lose their minds over this stuff. I’ve had friends act like a barely perceivable dead pixel is a horrible injustice that must be corrected. I’ve seen people start ridiculous fights over the function of the iPad orientation slider. And, the worst of all was Antennagate. The design was proven to be better overall, yet the hysteria played out in the press in what could have been a serious blow to the company.

    You want to embody this hysterical devotion, not just in a museum – but at Apple’s private place of business?

    You may be coming at this from the point of view as a historian, but as a developer? It takes countless hours of hard, focused work. I think if any place should be safe from the prying eyes of the press and fans it should be their headquarters.

    The Computer History Museum is right next door to Cupertino in Mountain View. They honestly have this covered. It doesn’t just have all of Apple’s greatest achievements, but all of the greatest things ever made in computing. Totally worth a visit.

  • owerrc

    you can’t really compare it to mercedes. Part of the mercedes brand is how the car represents a higher social status, and a lot of that comes from their long history. Their competitor, BMW, on the other hand, is all about innovation and sportiness. You don’t see them going around telling people about their history do you?

    Apple is about making the next coolest gadget that consumers have never thought about. Going around advertising its history doesn’t really help much. Just look at their upcoming headquarters and the apple stores around the world, it all tries to associate the brand with the future, not the past.

  • David Greelish

    Hi, thanks everyone for the comments. As I have said on my own site and in this follow-up article, I believe I have given people the wrong idea with the use of the word “museum.” What I suggest is better described as a visitor’s center, store, cafe with a gallery of Apple’s story. Look at the two pictures in the original article, this historical gallery is not intended to be a big loaded-down collection of everything they have ever put out. This whole premise that Apple can’t tell it’s own story and honor its past while staying the future-focused innovative company it is, is simply bunk. People will want to visit this campus and they need to prepare for it, so why not make something great, like they usually do. That’s just my opinion.

    Also, this is not a vanity piece and I don’t think they have to do it. I felt strongly about it and now I’m moving on, it’s not my life’s work or anything. Idiotic? How nice. You’re not capable of just politely disagreeing? I guess I’m ugly too? The Computer History Museum is great, but they’re not Apple and again, the campus will draw people by itself. Mercedes is a good example of a company honoring it’s own legacy.

  • gavernmusic

    I disagree about the comments people are making about the author of this post, I don’t see self importance etc etc I actually very much enjoyed the article, and I believe it was well written. We all should be given some credit for ideas etc but often have to tread on ice in case we’re accused of being egocentric, which I don’t believe this author is. Anyway, back to point. I wouldn’t like an “Apple Museum” per se. But a visitor Center at the new campus, certainly. Perhaps an interactive environment with an indoor and outdoor area, a place to learn about the future ideas and experience them, and perhaps a place to interact with the products and feel near to the heart of where they are created in thought. Maybe they already have plans for a visitor center etc but I certainly would love it. I can’t tell you what a difference having a MacBook has had on my life, it has allowed me to bring ideas into reality and so I have a very deep bond with it and I’m so grateful to Apple for this.