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The hubris of Steve Jobs

Apple reported a banner quarter yesterday, posting $20 billion in revenues for the first time ever. So why does Steve Jobs sound so defensive?

Jobs surprised investors by joining the company's conference call yesterday, a run-of-the-mill task the Apple founder usually leaves to his deputies, because he "couldn't help dropping by for our first 20-billion-dollar quarter." But he wasn't there just to answer questions or savor the moment. Early in the call, Jobs launched into a five-minute rant about Google, Android and the iPad's competitors.

His tone was rather biting; his words, critical. "We think [Google's] open versus closed argument is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is, 'What's best for the customer?'" Of Amazon, Verizon and Vodafone's different app stores, Jobs said, "This is gonna be a mess." And the new crop of iPad rivals? "Dead on arrival." Ouch.

It's rare to see CEOs trash their rivals in such a carefully orchestrated setting. Yes, some get caught on the defensive when provoked, or respond harshly after a probing question. But then again, this is Jobs, who's never shied away from talking up Apple. He came out swinging, offering up his little monologue before analysts even had the chance to ask him about his competitors. As Jeff Bercovici writes over at Forbes, "the Olympian posture of disdaining one's rivals as not worth the breath required to trash them" is not for Jobs.

But even for all of Jobs's swagger, it's clear that Android's good results--and good reviews--may be frustrating him. The Post's Cecilia Kang writes that in August, Nielsen found that 32 percent of new users purchased a device running on Google's operating system, more than double the portion of new users surveyed in January. That's compared to about 25 percent each for BlackBerry and iPhone.

I'm all for CEOs being a little more candid when it comes to discussing their competition. Some go out of their way to avoid even saying their rivals' names on the record (which can sound ridiculous), much less openly criticizing them. But there is such a thing as too much hubris--even for a company with results as stellar as Apple's--and a healthy respect for competitors should be something in every leader's lexicon. Most at least pretend they have it.

By Jena McGregor

 |  October 19, 2010; 12:15 PM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , CEO watch , Corporate leadership , Leadership advice , Pop Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"Apple stole the graphics and mouse concept from Xerox so they never invented a damn thing."

Apple bashers just love love love to say this. The only snag is, it's untrue. Apple did not steal those ideas from Xerox, they *licensed* them. When Steve Jobs saw those things at PARC, he knew that that was the wave of the future, so he told PARC that if they *allowed* Apple to design and sell a computer using a mouse and GUI, they would give PARC one million dollars in Apple stock. PARC agreed.

This is not "stealing" in any sense of the term. Get over it. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for hating the company without having to drag out the same old false allegations.

Posted by: psknight | October 22, 2010 9:38 AM

I wish I had as legitimate grounds for chutzpa as Mr. Jobs and Apple. You make creativity and excellence sound as if they are a sin. Apple and Google are the most creative innovators in the IT industry, and the public benefits immeasurably by their inventions. Mr. Jobs has earned his swagger. How about you?

Posted by: bloommarko4 | October 22, 2010 6:16 AM

@CAPTAIN3292: sounds like you missed a dose of your medication. You think Jobs "...does not know how to operate in a competitive market place". Maybe he doesn't have to, because Apple gear is so far ahead of any "competitor". You also Jobs "...has no experience in practicing leap frog technology". Open your eyes and look at ANY of the products from Apple: the Apple II, the original Macintosh, the QuickTake digital camera, the Newton PDA, the iPod, iPad to name a few. All pioneering stuff. All criticised at first and then widely copied. Apple is the R&D expert and all the rest blatantly follow.

Posted by: sandbagger | October 20, 2010 9:48 PM

I'd believe the term hubris is a misrepresentation. What I heard was simply a laying out of the fact and differences in product approach -- and Job's statement that Apple they doesn't want the volume lead in the marketplace; they want the product lead. Read MacWorld's collection of his comments in the call.

As to the issues of 'freedom,' in my day job I work IT supporting Windows, Linux, and UNIX and engineering design tools thereupon. I also own a mailing store franchise. At the end of the day, I go home to work on a Mac. The time I spend tinkering with making things work is time I can NOT spend working on the things that make money for myself and my personal company. Too many people lose sight that computers, cell phones, etc. are simply tools. If the tool doesn't work for you, you can't do anything with it.

Posted by: WalterGr | October 20, 2010 6:15 PM

When I purchased my Galaxy S Android phone for AT&T it was with the comforting knowledge that I would not be contributing one cent to this megalomaniac. He has the same mentality that created politburos and orthodoxy committees. It is not politics but rather a desire to be a total control freak with the only accpetable vision of how the world should be. But he will be gone from the scene before long and his personal contribitions to technology will be far down the list when compared to Edison, Ford, Tesla and Bell.

Posted by: socaloralpleazer | October 20, 2010 12:25 PM

Apple never innovated anything. They stole technology and were proud of it. When they were developing the Macintosh their development building flew a pirate flag. All Apple provides today are toys. I've used Apple products and discovered very fast that the hardware is shoddily built and often has a short life. This is built into their marketing scheme of rapid obsolescence

Jobs ranted and threw a tantrum at Google and other competitors because he does not know how to operate in a competitive market place. He has no experience in practicing leap frog technology.

In response to BayouPhilosopher, Apple stole the graphics and mouse concept from Xerox so they never invented a damn thing. Dell builds computers just like I do. They don't rely on Apple.

Apple originally used Motorola processors until Intel drove all over them forcing Apple into use of the Intel chip. They were told in England to cease false advertising that the G5 was the fastest computer in the World. It was proven that they were equal to a PC in fact there were some PCs faster.

They do know how to sell overpriced junk to the mindless children.

Posted by: captain3292 | October 20, 2010 9:52 AM

I doubt that there are long term studies as to the effects of iPhone addiction on the eyes. I know I have given up my data plan partly because my eyesight has gotten much worse since I got an iPhone.
I still love my MacBook but using a cellphone for anything other calling in an emergency is out for me.

Posted by: mountainsister41 | October 19, 2010 11:59 PM

This comment: "What's best for the customer?" is really devious, it is not Job's concern. Too many designs on the record that go the other way. Designing a new ipod that won't accept any standard headphone? That's best for the customer? Actually their design knowledge is not that great at all, except to make it flashy and appeal to the self-considered cool ones. Shaped the world? That is really out there in the stratosphere. If you believe that you live in a very strange world indeed.

Posted by: larry9 | October 19, 2010 11:42 PM

Lots of Mac and iPhone lovin', kool-aid drinkin' Apple lovers in here. I used to be one, but Jobs knows best doesn't cut it foor me and never did. And seriously, brush up on your history. Bundling ALL the software with a propietary OS and computer was pioneered decades ago by IBM (see first PC and system 360). It didn't work, and they quickly opened (licensed) their architecture to allow innovation and encourage it on their platform. Further, why don't you google 'xerox and palo alto and mouse' to see where Apple got its 'inspiration' once up on a time. Cheers!

Posted by: lanlord10 | October 19, 2010 10:49 PM

Sorry, Bayou Philosopher. I didn't mean to challenge your religion. I was stating my preferences. None of the innovations you mention were Apple's, but I know Apple enthusiasts love to tow that line. I do know that Apple charges twice what any other computer manufacturer charges for similar technology, because they're able to sell their "we're cool" baloney. I didn't find the first generations of iPods, with their abominable battery problems (that resulted in class action suits) so cool, and as far as I was concerned, the Apple "support" (lauded elsewhere in this string) was completely invisible. My hunch is that the owners of the new iPhones, who waited patiently, only to discover "antenna problems", feel similarly.

Posted by: FredAlbert | October 19, 2010 10:38 PM

Just for the record, Steve has achieved something not considered possible a decade ago, namely to combine hardware and software innovation into one "computer" company whereas Dell does the former and Microsoft the latter. Google is only now crossing the divide.

Steve knew the time for a literal "computer" maker was over, whereas a lifestyle and entertainment company could succeed by providing an agile new platform and easy access to the "real" software out there, ie. music and user-generated blogs, photos, tweets and videos.

There really is no "personal computer" anymore, instead a multi-faceted portable and very personal media-entertainment device. Hats off, Steve.

By the way, in the way of rant, Apple is a rare company willing to provide genuine after-sale service and maintenance at a fair price, through the Genius Bar service at their stores. My PowerBook is alive because of it.

But I own many tech gadgets from name-brand companies that are orphaned at the point of sale, and left to the dumpster if and when something goes on the blink.

Dissing the competition goes on in the NFL, the NBA, the boxing ring, the local Senate race, so why not in red-blooded American commerce? Right on Steve!

Posted by: peterfuchs | October 19, 2010 8:02 PM

To the poster who wrote "neither he nor Apple have contributed much to any serious use of computers..." You have not been paying attention: Apple has essentially been the R&D department for 25 years for Microsoft, HP, Dell, and all the other clone PC makers (many of whom no longer exist) who constantly copy Apples innovations. The graphic user interface, the mouse, the laser printer, OSX the first modern operating system, --all set the pace for the Windows/PC world.

And to FredAlber ("I avoid Apple whenever possible. Their reputation for hip gizmos is mostly jive.") How do you like using your Microsoft Zuni, dude?

Posted by: BayouPhilosopher | October 19, 2010 4:59 PM

Steve Jobs and Obama suffer from the same ailment: OIE (Over Inflated Ego). They can't help but indulge in self-adulation but only at the expense of the competition.

Posted by: ahashburn | October 19, 2010 4:11 PM

This means that he is truly concerned about Google as a competitor. Which he should be.

Posted by: lauther266 | October 19, 2010 3:27 PM

The cardinal rule of sales is never to knock the opposition. It makes thinking people wonder what you are trying to hide.
What is Mr. Jobs hiding -- and why?
Look at the equipment on the Asian market and you'll see why -- equipment that is superior and on its way to North America and Europe.
I think I'll take a miss on Apple.
Rudy Haugeneder
Victoria, BC, Canada

Posted by: Rudy7 | October 19, 2010 3:07 PM

Hi all,
Thanks for the comments. alonzoQuijana, you're right, earnings reports are a big deal, which is why most CEOs participate in them every quarter. My "run-of-the-mill" comment was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek.

Posted by: Jena McGregor | October 19, 2010 2:10 PM

I'm glad as hell that I thought hard about my choice of smart phone, and went with the Droid Incredible. It's synched perfectly with my gmail, google calendar, and google voice applications (no need to set up and maintain any of that). Google maps is better than the garmin GPS I have in my car. Verizon has much better coverage than AT&T. No problems with any of the Droid apps (including Flash apps). No need to visit the Gatekeeper (iStore) to bow to his highness for my music, videos or apps. And I've had no trouble in finding the apps I like and/or need. I avoid Apple whenever possible. Their reputation for hip gizmos is mostly jive. Overpriced jive.

Posted by: FredAlbert | October 19, 2010 1:56 PM

As an Apple shareholder I appreciate the candor. I have money at stake and I want to know in a clear, concise way why I should stay invested in a company. Too many CEOs mince words and obfuscate. That, in my opinion, is not leadership.

As for Jobs "just dropping by", if you had listened to the call, you would know that was intended as a joke. Yet I see a few of the clueless financial media thought this was actually spur-of-the-moment idea. (Speaks volume for the gullibility of the media).

Nor is a conference call concerning a $284 billion company a "run of the mill" task. A gaffe or a mistake could easily result in a $20 billlion decline in market cap. I've worked in investor relations and even a $500MM company takes these calls very seriously.

Posted by: alonzoQuijana | October 19, 2010 1:49 PM

Jobs is an egotistical tyrant who has spent his adult life surrounded with fanboys who just nod at everything he says. The only "sin" worse than actual sin at Apple is the infamous "insufficient adulation" some dare to display.
Fanboys are not simply enthusiastic Apple supporters, or even a bit over the top. They are Kool-Aid drinkers whose stance toward Jobs would require a Biblical scholar to fully explain.
This is a man who disavowed a daughter, Lisa, and forced her to live a childhood in virtual poverty even as he became a multi-millionaire. This is a man who recently manipulated police to bash in the door of a man a la Stalin's era.
This is a man who needs to go attend to his health and family and stop bullying competitors. The lack of anyone in his life who speaks truth to him is a tragedy.

Posted by: FloridaChick | October 19, 2010 1:46 PM

Steve Jobs clearly has been highly successful in creating a very profitable business. But the idea that he has contributed significantly to shaping the world is nonsense. His role is similar to a high fashion designer who is successful in designing trendy products that are must haves for hot consumers. But neither he nor Apple have contributed much to any serious use of computers.

Posted by: dnjake | October 19, 2010 1:44 PM

Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are examples of what hard work and hiring the right people can do.

Posted by: kkrimmer | October 19, 2010 1:21 PM

This reminds me of the Dandy Don Meredith quote,

"It ain't braggin' if he can do it."

Most CEOs just stuff money in their pockets. How many other CEOs can claim that they helped shape the world?

Posted by: FutureView2010 | October 19, 2010 1:10 PM

I would agree that that was some big ol swagger on Jobs part. I must say it was nice to see Apple ready to rumble in public.

I will also add that Jobs and Apple are so well measured that there is something up their collective sleeves. It is all about the experience with your gadget and Apple makes it great.

Posted by: jolu32339 | October 19, 2010 12:43 PM

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