"I haven't spoken to Steve in 20-odd years," says John Sculley, the former Apple CEO who ejected Jobs from the company in 1985, in an illuminating, slightly painful Daily Beast interview. Hindsight is 20/20, yes, but also cruel.
If you read the interview (and you should) your eyes will probably dart around, trying to find the answer to the questions posed by the headline: Why did Sculley fire Jobs? What was he thinking? Sculley doesn't shed a whole lot of light on that subject, but the story's sat prominently in the annals of regrettable decisions for a long time: Sculley, an outside hire for the CEO position, was brought in to tame Jobs. Jobs didn't respond well to this, as could have been expected. There was conflict, and Jobs was let go. Simple enough!
What Sculley does talk about is what could have happened differently, and how the whole ousting could have been avoided:
My sense is that it probably would never have broken down between Steve and me if we had figured out different roles. Maybe he should have been the CEO and I should have been the president. It should have been worked out ahead of time, and that's one of those things you look to a really good board to do.
But what isn't really addressed is a whopper of an implied question: What would have happened if Steve Jobs never left? It's appealing to imagine that the Apple of today—the slick, rightfully confident and consistently surprising behemoth that has the power and will to obliterate (or invigorate) almost instantly entire sectors of the tech industry—would have materialized much sooner, but it's also irresponsible. Steve Jobs was gone from Apple for over 10 years. Who knows what would have happened if he and Sculley stayed on and had it out, or worked out a leadership compromise?
Also, it's foolish—but again appealing—to think that the Steve Jobs who was fired in 1985 drifted asleep to fantastical dreams of iPods and iPhones, and that iTunes was swimming around somewhere in some cortex, or even that he—or anyone—could have coherently talked about what the company would look like in 20, 15 or even 10 years. The level of uncertainty at timescales like this, especially in an industry like Apple's, is massive. In other words—alternative history words, weeee!—while it's likely that firing Jobs was a strategic mistake that held Apple back, it's not impossible—not nearly—that it was actually a great move. Inadvertently great, maybe, but still: great. [Daily Beast, image via AllAboutSteveJobs]