Today, Steve Jobs is the toast of the business press. The charismatic CEO of Apple can summon the collective attention of every journalist in the country with a smirk and a wink whenever he introduces another wonder gadget. The products he has master-minded are legendary: Macintosh, iPod, iTunes, iPhone. He has a hand in the entertainment of nearly every home in the United States and millions more around the world. And he’s a non-entity in the IT operations of other companies.
But as successful as he has been in making entertainment devices for the masses, Steve Jobs doesn’t have a clue about how to sell anything to business customers. From 1981’s defective Apple III to the $10,000 NeXT Computer to Apple’s current efforts, the offerings that Steve Jobs has created for enterprise technology customers have universally flopped. The company’s current high-profile effort in that arena is the xServe, a sleek metal computer meant to handle the file-sharing needs of a small or medium business. While beautifully designed in the way that all of Apple’s products are, the xServe screams to the world of business that it was not designed with them in mind. People working in technology at companies want to buy something that looks reliable, fast, and, most importantly, too complex-looking for ordinary people to manage. Simple hardware doesn’t connect with its intended audience, and the xServe has no traction whatsoever with business customers.
This is not a new problem for Jobs. Back in 1985, during his first tenure at Apple, Jobs commissioned a commercial entitled “Lemmings” that aired during the Super Bowl. Apple is justifiably acclaimed for its innovative “1984” ad that launche the Macintosh computer by comparing Apple rival IBM to domineering totalitarian leader Big Brother, but that rebellious image backfired on Apple the following year. In “Lemmings,” legions of blindfolded, pale ghouls in business suits in a line march in lockstep off of a cliff while whistling an eerie version of the tune “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go.” No one steps out of the deadly parade, until one brave maverick removes his blindfold, adopts the Apple Macintosh Office system and sees a brighter day. The star of the commercial must have been a maverick, as the advertised Macintosh Office required a file server that never actually made it to market. Moreover, the spot underscores the fundamental gap between Jobs and the customers that IBM connects best with.
The commercial is offensive to business customers for any number of reasons, including its blanket condemnation of typical work and, worse, the insults it directs at IT managers. Insults never convince anyone to change. In recent years, an older, wiser Jobs has taken Apple back to the top as a consumer brand, but he still can’t connect with business customers. This was dramatized in another Apple ad campaign, entitled “Get a Mac.” In the series of ads, a chubby, bespectacled and besuited gent identifies himself as a PC running Windows. By contrast, a hip, young and fun twentysomething personifies an Apple Mac. To Apple’s credit, the spots position the Mac as being good at fun tasks, and PCs being good at business tasks. It’s a light-hearted rejoinder of the same old debate, and it acknowledges that Apple still has never made real in-roads in selling computers to businesses. Though Apple’s share of home computer sales has risen steadily in the last decade, its business market share shows no signs of increasing, and it likely never will with Jobs in charge.