‘I did not fire Steve Jobs’, says ex-Apple CEO John Sculley

21 May 2015

John Sculley

Former Apple CEO John Sculley has attempted to put to bed a myth that he was the person who fired the late Steve Jobs from Apple in 1985. Instead, he said Jobs left Apple after being removed from his beloved Mac division by the board.

Speaking at the Engage 2015 Conference in Prague, Sculley explained how, ironically, he is now hard at work with an ex-Apple team building an affordable Android phone for the developing world called the Obi smartphone.

“The reality of what happened was that Steve was always brilliant – he had more talent than anyone I ever worked with – we were with each other seven days a week. We were not just business partners, we were good friends.”

Sculley gave a background to the events leading to Jobs’ departure from Apple.

“Steve was only 27 years old and when I joined he was demoted from the Lisa group by the board because he was not anywhere near the mature executive he became. He reached a point in 1985 where he introduced the Macintosh Office – consisting a dot matrix printer and a Macintosh – but the problem was that it took a long time to print out the images. The processor just wasn’t powerful enough.”

Sculley said that the Macintosh Office package bombed and Jobs was upset.

“He turned on me and said ‘it’s your fault you forced me to price it too high.’ He wanted it at US$1,995 but we sold at US$2,495. He wanted to drop price and move all of Apple’s advertising to support it. I warned of a loss – I had talked to engineers and they said the reason it didn’t work had nothing to do with price or marketing, it was physics.”

Sculley said that Jobs’ famous reality distortion field had taken hold and that he was so charismatic that he even convinced himself. “Sadly it was only a year later that processors were powerful enough to do what Steve aimed for.”

Sculley said he and Jobs agreed to go to the board and pitch their views on what to do with the Macintosh Office.

“It was after making the pitches that the Apple board asked Steve to step down from the Macintosh division for being too disruptive in the organisation.

“Steve was never fired. He took a sabbatical and was still chairman of the board. He was down, no one pushed him, but he was off the Mac, which was his deal – he never forgave me for that.

“He started NeXt and was sued by the board for hiring Apple engineers, but he was never fired by Apple.”

Sculley expressed his remorse that he and Jobs never renewed their former friendship.

“It was never repaired, which was such a shame – I look back and think what a mistake on my part. Corporate America was secular and there just wasn’t the passion you see today where there is such respect for founders. To remove a founder, even if he was never fired, was a mistake.

“I wish we had got together and renewed our friendship, but it didn’t happen.”

John Sculley speaking at the Engage Conference

John Sculley speaking at the Engage Conference

Noble causes

Speaking about his efforts with Obi, Sculley recalled that he and Jobs originally began working on the Mac Phone back in 1984 but the technology wasn’t ready.

“We are now in an era where the technology is commoditised. Apple makes the best products in the world. I have an iPhone 6 and I love it. But it costs nearly US$800 to buy. There are 2bn people in the world aspiring to be part of the new emerging middle class, so I decided why don’t we take existing 4G LTE technology and I took the original Mac team and decided let’s design a Silicon Valley product into a commodity budget and go global with the fit and finish and design that people would expect from a high-end device.”

He said the Obi phone will retail for around US$100.

Sculley pointed out that he is inspired by his memories of working with Steve Jobs.

“When I came to Apple I was a veteran of the Cola Wars and I had won. I remember sitting with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and they were talking about their noble causes, which was to empower knowledge workers with incredible tools.

“I can’t remember a single conversation where either of them talked about making money. They had different strategies – Bill was about the software with less focus on hardware, while Steve was the reverse and was all about controlling everything. But they had the same big vision.

“This is a noble cause too because for many people in emerging markets a smartphone has the potential to change their lives. In Kenya, 40pc of GDP goes over mobile payments. You can use disposable biosensors, take a picture and determine if someone has Aids or Ebola.

“We’re not competing with Apple. We are pursuing a noble cause by building an affordable device with a beautiful design. It really is a noble cause.”

Social revolution

Looking back on the Cola Wars, where as CEO he took Pepsi from being a regional brand into a globally-recognised competitor to Coca-Cola, Sculley recalled advertising campaigns like the famous 1984 ad by Apple.

“Social media is amazing. I wish we had it back in those early days because it is so much more powerful than TV.

“However, it can take a brand down just as fast – look at Myspace. We live in a fragile world, it’s not just about joining the dots, it’s about connecting the dots on the fly.”

In his book Moonshot, Sculley calls for businesses to put the customer first. “The customer plan is in, the business plan is out, it’s just a budgeting technique. You should be asking yourself what’s in it for the customer – create an exceptional customer experience. Instead of just budgeting be asking how you can engage, solve a problem and recruit customers. This applies to every industry I’ve ever seen. It takes five to eight times the cost to replace the sale of a lost customer.

“If you are tethered to the past – break out.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years