Executive Careers Blog

Lessons From Apple's “Other” Steve

"I try mainly to make good comments but I'm honest about flaws too. I don't get into arguments trying to claim that there are objective reasons that make one person's phone better than another's. It's subjective. You can't win such arguments, only have a stressful life doing so. I have no problem praising and learning from non-Apple products as well as Apple products, when they are good."

            – Steve Wozniak, quoted on Geek.com(via Gizmodo)

Apple Store 5th Ave NY

Welcome to yet another blog post about Apple.

One that mentions the iPad.

And the iPhone.

Seen it all before? Probably. I mean, what else could there possibly be left to say that hasn't been said by someone else already?

Relax, though, for this is not your typical Apple blog, or any kind of review of its products or marketing or ability to generate hype, — the founding father you rarely hear anything about, Steve Wozniak.

By now, most people with any interest in business, technology, or just plain ol' American success stories should have some idea of Steve Jobs' story—co-founds Apple, gets kicked out, finds success with Pixar, comes back to Apple, invents iPod and iPhone, changes the way millions of people around the world live their lives on a daily basis. With that kind of a narrative, it's easy to forget that there were others involved along the way. One such person is the aforementioned Wozniak, a co-founder of the firm, and someone who maintains involved with the firm to this day as a shareholder.

What's perhaps most intriguing about Wozniak is that, despite retaining a vested interest in Apple's success, he openly compares the company's products to those of their competitors. Where you have Jobs striving to build up the mystique and accompanying cultish feel of Apple, you have Wozniak declaring his love for Google's rival Nexus One phone. And, where you have Jobs describing Apple's latest offering -the iPad- as "magical," there's Wozniak once again bringing things back to earth, proclaiming that it's a good e-reader, but that for most day-to-day needs it's "no better than the iPhone or iPod."

While each of those pronouncements may seem like a man determined to shoot his former employer in the foot, it's worth noting that the spirit that drove each of them is precisely what allows Apple to stay ahead of the game. In the interview where Wozniak spoke about the Google phone , his comments only came about when he was asked for his favorite gadget at the moment—and which he later clarified by insisting that there are still many areas where he believes the iPhone is ahead. But that, coupled with his quote at the top of this piece, is an instructive commentary on what it takes to be a leader in his field, and many others. And, while he may not be doing Apple any favors in the marketplace by giving props to a rival product, one can assume that the product managers and developers and Apple are paying attention to his critiques—something that may well lead to improved technology in the future.

Wozniak's pronouncements on the iPad are instructive for an inside look at where Apple is likely to be going next. In discussing the product, as the folks at Geek.com tell it, he said that "an accompanying digital print store ... might become a 'bigger change' than the actual hardware." In its way, that's as close to a marketing statement as it seems you're likely to get from Wozniak—an inducement to buy the product because of what will be available for it in months and years to come, rather than simply because it's a ground-breaking development in and of itself.

Of course, not everyone can get away with being as frank as Wozniak about their own company and products—and there's definitely a freedom that comes with not working for the firm in an official capacity—but there are still things about him that any current or aspiring exec can learn from.

As we have seen, commitment to excellence is one of them, while knowing what constitutes excellence by keeping up with developments in the field is another.

And, finally, while it may be a marketing manager's nightmare, both customers and employees tend to appreciate honesty and a sense of perspective from those at the top—even if they don’t officially work for the firm any more—if only because it's such a refreshing change from the norm.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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