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

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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.