April 6, 1939: John Sculley is born in New York City. He will grow up to be hailed as a business and marketing genius, eventually overseeing Apple’s transformation into the most profitable personal computer company in the world.
After a remarkable stint as president of Pepsi-Cola, Sculley will take over as Apple’s third CEO in 1983. He runs Apple for a 10-year period, guiding the creation of the revolutionary Newton MessagePad. During Sculley’s decade at the helm, Apple sells more personal computers than any other company. But he’s still remembered for his role in kicking Steve Jobs out of Apple.
Selling sugared water, changing the world
Despite having no background in selling tech products, Jobs lured Sculley to Apple from Pepsi with one of the most famous lines in business: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”
Although Jobs didn’t technically run Apple as CEO until he returned to the company in the late 1990s, the idea was that he and Sculley would run it together like co-CEOs. Jobs and Apple’s engineers would take care of the cutting-edge technology, while Sculley would use his marketing expertise to legitimize Apple.
Sculley, meanwhile, resigned as CEO in 1993, having increased Apple’s sales from $800 million to $8 billion. During this period, the Apple II and Macintosh computers became Apple’s biggest sellers, with the latter gradually overtaking the former.
MessagePads and Knowledge Navigators
“One of the issues that got me fired was that there was a split inside the company as to what the company ought to do,” Sculley told Cult of Mac in a wide-ranging interview. “There was one contingent that wanted Apple to be more of a business computer company. They wanted to open up the architecture and license it. There was another contingent, which I was a part of, that wanted to take the Apple methodology — the user experience and stuff like that — and move into the next generation of products, like the Newton.”
While at Apple, Sculley sometimes got painted as an operations-minded outsider who lacked the world-changing vision of someone like Jobs. Sculley will be the first person to tell you he didn’t measure up to Jobs in this capacity, but he actually oversaw some amazing R&D projects during his time as CEO.
One of these was the Newton, which was often regarded as his answer to the Mac — meaning that it was his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as CEO.
“It was Sculley’s Macintosh,” Frank O’Mahoney, one of the Apple marketing managers who worked on the Newton, told me when I interviewed him for my book The Apple Revolution. “It was Sculley’s opportunity to do what Steve had done, but in his own category of product.”
The Newton failed to take off immediately, but the concept for such a mobile device formed the basis for the iPhone, which now represents the bulk of Apple’s revenues. Sculley also commissioned an R&D project called the Knowledge Navigator — which predicted the arrival of tools like Siri and the iPad, almost down to the exact month.
Sculley stayed at Apple as chairman until 1995, before leaving the company completely. Today he remains in tech as an investor, particularly interested in smartphones for developing markets.
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