'lostdecade' Episodes

Apple's Lost Decade

     2/12/2021

I often think of companies in relation to their contribution to the next evolution in the forking and merging of disciplines in computing that brought us to where we are today. Many companies have multiple contributions. Few have as many such contributions as Apple. But there was a time when they didn’t seem so innovative. 

This lost decade began about half way through the tenure of John Sculley and can be seen through the lens of the CEOs. There was Sculley, CEO from 1983 to 1993. Co-founders and spiritual centers of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, left Apple in 1985. Jobs to create NeXT and Wozniak to jump into a variety of companies like making universal remotes, wireless GPS trackers, and and other adventures. 

This meant Sculley was finally in a position to be fully in charge of Apple. His era would see sales 10x from $800 million to $8 billion. Operationally, he was one of the more adept at cash management, putting $2 billion in the bank by 1993. Suddenly the vision of Steve Jobs was paying off. That original Mac started to sell and grow markets. But during this time, first the IBM PC and then the clones, all powered by the Microsoft operating system, completely took the operating system market for personal computers. Apple had high margins yet struggled for relevance. 

Under Sculley, Apple released HyperCard, funded a skunkworks team in General Magic, arguably the beginning of ubiquitous computing, and using many of those same ideas he backed the Newton, coining the term personal digital assistant. Under his leadership, Apple marketing sent 200,000 people home with a Mac to try it out. Put the device in the hands of the people is probably one of the more important lessons they still teach newcomers that work in Apple Stores. 

Looking at the big financial picture it seems like Sculley did alright. But in Apple’s fourth-quarter earnings call in 1993, they announced a 97 drop from the same time in 1992. This was also when a serious technical debt problem began to manifest itself. 

The Mac operating system grew from the system those early pioneers built in 1984 to Macintosh System Software going from version 1 to version 7. But after annual releases leading to version 6, it took 3 years to develop system 7 and the direction to take with the operating system caused a schism in Apple engineering around what would happen once 7 shipped. Seems like most companies go through almost the exact same schism. Microsoft quietly grew NT to resolve their issues with Windows 3 and 95 until it finally became the thing in 2000. IBM had invested heavily into that same code, basically, with Warp - but wanted something new. 

Something happened while Apple was building macOS 7. They lost Jean Lois Gasseé who had been head of development since Steve Jobs left. When Sculley gave everyone a copy of his memoir, Gasseé provided a copy of The Mythical Man-Month, from Fred Brooks’ experience with the IBM System 360. It’s unclear today if anyone read it. To me this is really the first big sign of trouble. Gassée left to build another OS, BeOS. 

By the time macOS 7 was released, it was clear that the operating system was bloated, needed a massive object-oriented overhaul, and under Sculley the teams were split, with one team eventually getting spun off into its own company and then became a part of IBM to help with their OS woes. The team at Apple took 6 years to release the next operating system. Meanwhile, one of Sculley’s most defining decisions was to avoid licensing the Macintosh operating system. Probably because it was just too big a mess to do so. And yet everyday users didn’t notice all that much and most loved it. 

But third party developers left. And that was at one of the most critical times in the history of personal computers because Microsoft was gaining a lot of developers for Windows 3.1 and released the wildly popular Windows 95. 

The Mac accounted for most of the revenue of the company, but under Sculley the company dumped a lot of R&D money into the Newton. As with other big projects, the device took too long to ship and when it did, the early PDA market was a red ocean with inexpensive competitors. The Palm Pilot effectively ended up owning that pen computing market. 

Sculley was a solid executive. And he played the part of visionary from time to time. But under his tenure Apple found operating system problems, rumors about Windows 95, developers leaving Apple behind for the Windows ecosystem, and whether those technical issues are on his lieutenants or him, the buck stocks there. The Windows clone industry led to PC price wars that caused Apple revenues to plummet. And so Markkula was off to find a new CEO. 

Michael Spindler became the CEO from 1993 to 1996. The failure of the Newton and Copland operating systems are placed at his feet, even though they began in the previous regime. Markkula hired Digital Equipment and Intel veteran Spindler to assist in European operations and he rose to President of Apple Europe and then ran all international. He would become the only CEO to have no new Mac operating systems released in his tenure. Missed deadlines abound with Copland and then Tempo, which would become Mac OS 8. 

And those aren’t the only products that came out at the time. We also got the PowerCD, the Apple QuickTake digital camera, and the Apple Pippin. Bandai had begun trying to develop a video game system with a scaled down version of the Mac. The Apple Pippin realized Markkula’s idea from when the Mac was first conceived as an Apple video game system. 

There were a few important things that happened under Spindler though. First, Apple moved to the PowerPC architecture. Second, he decided to license the Macintosh operating system to companies wanting to clone the Macintosh. And he had discussions with IBM, Sun, and Philips to acquire Apple. Dwindling reserves, increasing debt. Something had to change and within three years, Spindler was gone.

Gil Amelio was CEO from 1996 to 1997. He moved from the board while the CEO at National Semiconductor to CEO of Apple. He inherited a company short on cash and high on expenses. He quickly began pushing forward OS 8, cut a third of the staff, streamline operations, dumping some poor quality products, and releasing new products Apple needed to be competitive like the Apple Network Server. 

He also tried to acquire BeOS for $200 million, which would have Brough Gassée back but instead acquired NeXT for $429 million. But despite the good trajectory he had the company on, the stock was still dropping, Apple continued to lose money, and an immovable force was back - now with another decade of experience launching two successful companies: NeXT and Pixar. 

The end of the lost decade can be seen as the return of Steve Jobs. Apple didn’t have an operating system. They were in a lurch soy-to-speak. I’ve seen or read it portrayed that Steve Jobs intended to take control of Apple. And I’ve seen it portrayed that he was happy digging up carrots in the back yard but came back because he was inspired by Johnny Ive. But I remember the feel around Apple changed when he showed back up on campus. As with other companies that dug themselves out of a lost decade, there was a renewed purpose. There was inspiration. 

By 1997, one of the heroes of the personal computing revolution, Steve Jobs, was back. But not quite… He became interim CEO in 1997 and immediately turned his eye to making Apple profitable again. Over the past decade, the product line expanded to include a dozen models of the Mac. Anyone who’s read Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, Inside the Tornado, and Zone To Win knows this story all too well. We grow, we release new products, and then we eventually need to take a look at the portfolio and make some hard cuts. 

Apple released the Macintosh II in 1987 then the Macintosh Portable in 1989 then the Iicx and II ci in 89 along with the Apple IIgs, the last of that series. By facing competition in different markets, we saw the LC line come along in 1990 and the Quadra in 1991, the same year three models of the PowerBook were released. Different printers, scanners, CD-Roms had come along by then and in 1993, we got a Macintosh TV, the Apple Newton, more models of the LC and by 1994 even more of those plus the QuickTake, Workgroup Server, the Pippin and by 1995 there were a dozen Performas, half a dozen Power Macintosh 6400s, the Apple Network Server and yet another versions of the Performa 6200 and we added the eMade and beige G3 in 1997. The SKU list was a mess. Cleaning that up took time but helped prepare Apple for a simpler sales process. Today we have a good, better, best with each device, with many a computer being build-to-order. 

Jobs restructured the board, ending the long tenure of Mike Markkula, who’d been so impactful at each stage of the company so far. One of the forces behind the rise of the Apple computer and the Macintosh was about to change the world again, this time as the CEO. 


Microsoft's Lost Decade

     8/4/2021

Microsoft went from a fledgeling purveyor of a BASIC for the Altair to a force to be reckoned with. The biggest growth hack was when they teamed up with IBM to usher in the rise of the personal computer. They released apps and an operating system and by licensing DOS to anyone (not just IBM) and then becoming the dominant OS they allowed clone makers to rise and thus broke the hold IBM had on the computing industry since the days the big 8 mainframe companies were referred to as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

They were young and bold and grew fast. They were aggressive, taking on industry leaders in different segments, effectively putting CP/M out of business, taking out Lotus, VisiCalc, Novell, Netscape, `and many, many other companies.  

Windows 95 and Microsoft Office helped the personal computer become ubiquitous in homes and offices. The team knew about the technical debt they were accruing in order to grow fast. So they began work on projects that would become Windows NT and that kernel would evolve into Windows 2000, phasing out the legacy operating systems. They released Windows Server, Microsoft Exchange, Flight Simulators, maps, and seemed for a time to be poised to take over the world. They even seemed to be about to conquer the weird new smart phone world.

And then something strange happened. They entered into what we can now call a lost decade. Actually there’s nothing strange about it. This happens to nearly every company.

Innovation dropped off. Releases of Windows got buggy. The market share of their mobile operating system fell away. Apple and Android basically took the market away entirely. They let Google take the search market and after they failed to buy Yahoo! they released an uninspired Bing. The MSN subscriptions that once competed with AOL fell away. Google Docs came and was a breath of fresh air. Windows Servers started moving into cloud solutions where Box or Dropbox were replacing filers and Sharepoint became a difficult story to tell. 

They copied features from other companies. But were followers - not leaders. And the stock barely moved for a decade, while Apple more than doubled the market cap of Microsoft for a time. What exactly happened here? Some have blamed Steve Ballmer, who replaced Bill Gates who had led the company since 1975 and if we want to include Traf-O-Data - since 1972.

They grew fast and by Y2K there were memes about how rich Bill Gates was. Then a lot changed over the next decade. Windows XP was released in 2001, the same year the first Xbox was released. They launched the Windows Mobile operating system in 2003, planning to continue the whole “rule the operating system” approach. Vista comes along in 2007. Bill Gates retires in 2008. Later that year, Google launches Chrome - which would eat market share away from Microsoft over time. Windows 7 launches in 2009. Microsoft releases Bing in 2009 and Azure in 2010. The Windows phone comes in 2010 as well, and they would buy Skype for $8.5 billion dollars the next year. The tablet Microsoft Surface coming in 2012, the same year the iPad was released.

And yet, there were market forces operating to work against what Microsoft was doing. Google had come roaring out of the dot com bubble bursting and proved how money could be made with search. Yahoo! was slow to respond. As Google’s aspirations became clear by 2008, Ballmer moved to buy them for $20 billion eventually growing the bid to nearly $45 billion - a move that was thwarted but helped to take the attention of the Yahoo! team away from the idea of making money.  That was the same year Android and Chrome was released. Meanwhile, Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and were shipping the 3G in 2008, taking the mobile market by storm. By 2010, slow sales of the Windows phone were already spelling the end for Ballmer. 

Microsoft had launched Windows CE in 1996, held the smaller Handheld PC market for a time. They took over and owned the operating system market for personal computers and productivity software. They were able to seize a weakened and lumbering IBM to do so.  And yet they turned into that lumbering juggernaut of a company. All those products and all the revenues being generated, Microsoft looked unstoppable by the end of the millennium. Then they got big. Like really big. And organizations can be big and stay lean - but they weren’t. 

Leaders fought leaders, programmers fled, and the fiefdoms caused them to be slow to jump into new opportunities. Bill Gates had been an intense leader - but the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust case against Microsoft and between that and just managing hyper-growth along the way they lost a focus on customers and instead focused inward. And so by all accounts, the lost decade began in 2001. Vista was supposed to ship in 2003 but pushed all the way back to 2007. Bing was a dud, losing billions out of the gate. By 2011 Google released Chrome OS - an operating system that was basically a web browser bootstrapped on Linux and effectively what Netscape founder Marc Andreesen foreshadowed in a Time piece in the early days of the browser wars.

Kurt Eichenwald of Vanity Fair wrote an article called MICROSOFT’S LOST DECADE in 2012, looking at what led to the lost decade. He pointed out the arrogance and the products that, even though they were initially developed at Microsoft, would be launched by others first. It was Bill Gates who turned down releasing the ebook, which would evolve into the tablet. The article explained that moving timelines around pushed developing new products back in the list of priorities. The Windows and Office divisions were making so much money for the company that they had all the power to make the decisions - even when the industry was moving in another direction. 

The original employees got rich when the company went public and much of the spunk left with them. The focus shifted to pushing up the stock price. Ballmer is infamously not a product guy and he became the president of the company in 1998 and moved to CEO in 2000. But Gates stayed on in product. As we see with companies when their stock price starts to fall, the finger pointing begins. Cost cutting begins. The more talented developers can work anywhere - and so companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple were able to fill their ranks with great developers. 

When organizations in a larger organization argue, new bureaucracies get formed. Those slow things down by replacing common sense with process. That is good to a point. Like really good to a point. Measure twice, cut once. Maybe even measure three times and cut once. But software doesn’t get built by committees, it gets built by humans. The closer engineers are to humans the more empathy will go into the code. We can almost feel it when we use tools that developers don’t fully understand. And further, developers write less code when they’re in more meetings. Some are good but when there are tiers of supervisors and managers and directors and VPs and Jr and Sr of each, their need to justify their existence leads to more meetings.

The Vanity Fair piece also points out that times changed. He called the earlier employees “young hotshots from the 1980s” who by then were later career professionals and as personal computers became pervasive the way people use them changed. And a generation of people who grew up with computers now interacted with them differently. People were increasingly always online. Managers who don’t understand their users need to release control of products to those who do. 

They made the Zune 5 years after the iPod was released and had lit a fire at Apple. Less than two months later, Apple released the iPhone and the Zune was dead in the water, never eclipsing over 5 percent of the market and finally being discontinued in 2012. Ballmer had predicted that all of these Apple products would fail and in a quote from a source in the Vanity Fair article, a former manager at Microsoft said “he is hopelessly out of touch with reality or not listening to the tech staff around him”.

One aspect the article doesn’t go into is the sheer number of products Microsoft was producing. They were competing with practically every big name in technology, from Apple to Oracle to Google to Facebook to Amazon to Salesforce. They’d gobbled up so many companies to compete in so many spaces that it was hard to say what Microsoft really was - and yet the Windows and Office divisions made the lions’ share of the money. They thought they needed to own every part of the ecosystem when Apple went a different route and opened a store to entice developers to go direct to market, making more margin with no acquisition cost to build a great ecosystem. 

The Vanity Fair piece ends with a cue from the Steve Jobs biography and to sum it up, Jobs said that Microsoft ended up being run by sales people because they moved the revenue needle - just as he watched it happen with Sculley at Apple. Jobs went on to say Microsoft would continue the course as long as Ballmer was at the helm. Back when they couldn’t ship Vista they were a 60,000 person company. By 2011 when the Steve Jobs biography was published, they were at 90,000 and had just rebounded from layoffs.

By the end of 2012, the iPhone had overtaken Microsoft in sales. Steve Ballmer left as the CEO of Microsoft in 2014 and Satya Nadella replaces him. Under his leadership, half the company would be moved into research later that year. Nadella wrote a book about his experience turning things around called Hit Refresh. Just as the book Microsoft Rebooted told the story of how Ballmer was going to turn things around in 2004 - except Hit Refresh was actually a pretty good book.

And the things seemed to work. The stock price had risen a little in 2014 but since then it’s shot up six times what it was. And all of the pivots to a more cloud-oriented company and many other moves seem to have been started under Ballmer’s regime, just as the bloated company they became started under the Gates regime. Each arguably did what was needed at the time. Let’s not forget the dot com bubble burst at the beginning of the Ballmer era and he had the 2008 financial crises. There be dragons that are micro-economic forces outside anyones control. 

But Nadella ran R&D and cloud offerings. He emphasized research - which means innovation. He changed the mission statement to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” He laid out a few strategies, to reinvent productivity and collaboration, power those with Microsoft’s cloud platform, and expand on Windows and gaming. And all of those things have been gangbusters ever since. They bought Mojang in 2014 and so are now the makers of Minecraft. They bought LinkedIn. They finally got Skype better integrated with the company so Teams could compete more effectively with Slack.

Here’s the thing. I knew a lot of people who worked, and many who still work at Microsoft during that Lost Decade. And I think every one of them is really just top-notch. Looking at things as they’re unfolding you just see a weekly “patch Tuesday” increment. Everyone wanted to innovate - wanted to be their best self. And across every company we look at in this podcast, nearly every one has had to go through a phase of a lost few years or lost decade. The ones who don’t pull through can never turn the tide on culture and innovation. The two are linked.

A bloated company with more layers of management inspires a sense of controlling managers who stifle innovation. At face value, the micro-aggressions seem plausible, especially to those younger in their career. We hear phrases like “we need to justify or analyze the market for each expense/initiative” and that’s true or you become a Xerox PARC or Digital Research where so many innovations never get to market effectively. We hear phrases like “we’re too big to do things like that any more” and yup, people running amuck can be dangerous - turns out move fast and break things doesn’t always work out. 

We hear “that requires approval” or “I’m their bosses bosses boss” or “you need to be a team player and run this by other leaders” or “we need more process” or “we need a center of excellence for that because too many teams are doing their own thing” or “we need to have routine meetings about this” or “how does that connect to the corporate strategy” or “we’re a public company now so no” or “we don’t have the resources to think about moon shots” or “we need a new committee for that” or “who said you could do that” and all of these taken as isolated comments would be fine here or there. But the aggregate of so many micro-aggressions comes from a place of control, often stemming from fear of change or being left behind and they come at the cost of innovation. 

Charles Simonyi didn’t leave Xerox PARC and go to Microsoft to write Microsoft Word to become a cog in a wheel that’s focused on revenue and not changing the world. Microsoft simply got out-innovated due to being crushed under the weight of too many layers of management and so overly exerting control over those capable of building cool stuff. I’ve watched those who stayed be allowed speak publicly again, engage with communities, take feedback, be humble, admit mistakes, and humanize the company. It’s a privilege to get to work with them and I’ve seen results like a change to a graphAPI endpoint one night when I needed a new piece of data. 

They aren’t running amuck. They are precise, targeted, and allowed to do what needs to be done. And it’s amazing how a chief molds the way a senior leadership team acts and they mold the way directors direct and they mold the way managers manage and down the line. An aspect of culture is a mission - another is values - and another is behaviors, which make up the culture. And these days I gotta’ say I’m glad to have witnessed a turnaround like they’ve had and every time I talk to a leader or an individual contributor at Microsoft I’m glad to feel their culture coming through.

So here’s where I’d like to leave this. We can all help shape a great culture. Leaders aren’t the only ones who have an impact. We can all innovate. An innovative company isn’t one that builds a great innovative product (although that helps) but instead one who becomes an unstoppable force due to lots of small innovations at every level of the organization. Where are we allowing politics or a need for control and over-centralization stifle others? Let’s change that.


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020