HOW do you make a book about Apple interesting if it isn't about Steve Jobs? Adam Lashinsky, a senior editor at Fortune magazine, has taken on that mission, with somewhat predictable results. His effort to explain how the Apple machine functions is like trying to lift the veil on a conjuror's secrets: the humdrum mechanics that lie behind the tricks can never be as interesting as the magic.
Yet Inside Apple still starts out with a worthwhile goal. The world's second-most valuable company (after Exxon) has always fought hard to stay out of the business school case studies. Lashinsky, however, promises to "decode (its) secret systems". So let's cut to the chase. There is, in the end, little mystery. The things that make Apple tick, according to this account, are deceptively simple to sum up: a single-minded focus on products, a relentlessly performance-driven culture, and a marketing and advertising function honed to send clear, simple messages. Many managers would lay claim to being inspired by the same or similar goals. The difference with the Apple Jobs created is that it actually seems to have lived by them.
Lashinsky's account rings true in its analysis of how Apple has been wilfully oblivious to management orthodoxies (there is none of the pursuit of employee "empowerment" in Jobs's Draconian management style). However, without direct contributions from the company's senior executives, and often stitched together from interviews with former executives and anonymous sources, it feels like snatching a glimpse through a half-closed blind.
Among the more interesting issues is how Apple has maintained its ability to come up with bold products and create entirely new markets. It has organised itself along functional lines, not into separate business units. No executive other than the chief financial officer has responsibility for a profit and loss account. According to Lashinsky, this has produced a tight group of narrowly focused experts who each do their one thing really well. This points to the big question that hangs over the book, as it does over Apple itself: can the company continue its recent string of successes without Jobs at the helm?
The Apple described here is clearly the projection of his personality. The chapter titles that claim to distil the secrets of Apple's success - Embrace Secrecy, Focus Obsessively, and Overwhelm Friends/Dominate Foes - sound like a litany of Jobs's character traits. By comparison, the final chapters - such as Plan for After (italicised by the author) Your Successor and Inspire Imitators - ring hollow. There is little evidence Jobs devoted himself to building a legacy and he had no interest in inspiring copycats.
©2012 The Financial Times Ltd
TITLE: Inside Apple: The Secrets Behind the Past and Future Success of Steve Jobs's Iconic Brand
AUTHOR: Adam Lashinsky
PUBLISHER: John Murray