Is Harry Ellison Right About Apple? Yes… and No

When Oracle chief Harry Ellison went on a CBS News interview and made his fearless forecast of a steep Apple decline, the discussion on whether or not the Cupertino-based tech company can soldier on in the absence of its deceased visionary leader Steve Jobs came alive once again. Is Ellison, a self-described close friend of Jobs, correct in his assessment? Well, he is, in many ways, but there are also some aspects of the situation that might tell us otherwise.

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He’s right—to an extent

When Ellison made the reference to the periods in Apple’s history, tagging them as times where Jobs was there and where he wasn’t, the inextricable link between Jobs and his company was highlighted once again. He made judgments on those periods with simple gestures of pointing upward or downward—and he was pointing upward at each “with Jobs” mention. That’s a pretty good encapsulation, even if the situations are much, much more complicated than that given Apple’s evolution.

Following Jobs’ ouster from Apple in 1985, the company began to decline even when things seemed to be sustainable for some time. After reaching periodically low stock prices in the mid-90s, Jobs was brought back on board in 1997. The Jony Ive-designed iMac was introduced the very next year, Apple opened its first retail stores and killed the market with the arrival of the iPod in 2001, launched the iTunes platform in 2003, and you probably remember the now-legendary announcement of the iPhone in 2007.

In addition, Ellison pertained to Jobs as the “Edison” or “Picasso” of our time—alluding to the once-in-a-generation talent and vision that the long-time Apple exec possessed. No matter how much his replacement can capitalize on the existing portfolio and the loyal client base of the company, this angle isn’t about business or money. It’s about how an individual can turn a tech company into a company that really innovates and transforms the industry.

Here’s where he’s wrong

In many ways, the situation Apple was in before Jobs came back is very different from today’s post-Jobs Apple. Perhaps the important thing to remember when considering the future of a mega-company like Apple is to get down to the basics. You first need to think about the massive load of cash that AAPL currently has. Any company with deep pockets like that can afford to make some minor mistakes along the way, especially since it has a product line (with sizeable profit margins) that’s enough to sustain itself and add more to the pile.

Second, while there’s no Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple has plenty of talent in its fold. It’s also achieved worship-level brand loyalty from its legions of fans. In an era of inconsistent product offerings from many device manufacturers, people like to know they can rely on a brand to deliver outstanding products. While Apple is said to have failed at innovating in recent years, it continues to churn out well-built, user-friendly devices that always score high on expert reviews and consumer ratings.

The iPhone continues to be the business phone of choice, despite Google’s Android devices constantly expanding the green robot’s market share. Rumors of upcoming releases still dominate tech news and water-cooler conversations. The iPad remains unbeatable, too. As long as the company continues to build upon these successful products, it will be in good shape.

In a market where manufacturers with fairly solid products are struggling to make profits, sometimes a company’s fortunes are more tied to how well it conducts the whole business—from concept and production to marketing and sales. While it might be a fair to say that Apple certainly isn’t pushing the envelope in terms of technology and that it could be bound to fail, as Mr. Ellison predicts, coming up with products people want and like to use should be enough to keep it comfortable in the foreseeable future.

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