Why I Should be Apple's Next CEO

January 4, 2009

Like our country back in 2000, Apple is a healthy organization coming off several years of strong growth. Yet, also like our country in the fall of that year, Apple is at a turning point, one where leadership and style define the outcome.

Steve Jobs has been a remarkable figure in American business. No one can take away his accomplishments – the risks, the few small failures, and the many spectacular back-to-back successes he has had as an innovator, a marketer, a pitch man, an investor, and a leader.

I spent twenty years in Silicon Valley in the shadow of Steve Jobs. I met him several times, worked for him, and followed his every move. When Apple bought his company, NeXT, in 1996, there was a nationwide search for the right chief executive. At the time, I said Steve Jobs was the only person who could lead that company. Over the ensuing twelve years, Steve turned Apple into one of the most successful 20th Century companies in the world. (I think my favorite product is still the LaserWriter – the first PostScript personal printer, but the iPhone would be a close second.)

Apple is a special company. Which is why its board should take the time to think creatively about who should lead this company for the next ten years. Most executive searches turn up a list of the usual suspects and end up with uncreative, uninspiring solutions (Yahoo! just went through exactly that.) Apple’s shareholders deserve better.

My plan is to turn Apple into a 21st Century company, and that means going from independence to interdependence, from a controlled kind of connectivity to superconnectivity. Under Steve, Apple has maintained a proprietary approach to almost everything – dictating the standards, the software, and the companies that become part of the Apple experience. A good example is the iPhone – if you want to add memory or run the iPhone software of your choice or turn your iPhone into a video camera, you’ll need some software Apple doesn’t want you to have. Apple has bravely gone it alone and won, and that strategy is about to run its course.

In just ten years, there won’t be any more PCs or MP3 players, there won’t even be any “smart phones” or televisions as we know them today. There won’t be any operating systems for consumers, no downloadable music, no DVDs, and 100% of today’s software will be retired. We’re on the brink of the Semantic Web, a transformation as significant and different as everything we’ve built over the last forty years. The Semantic Web will slowly but surely accelerate us from the old flat innovation curve to a new, disruptive, hyperconnected future. Companies like Apple and Microsoft are sitting like cows on the railroad tracks waiting for the train.

We’ve spent the last thirty years recreating our old paper documents and filing cabinets on hard drives – same information, just with an easier way to move it from place to place. We’ve gotten very good at integrating hard drives and memory chips into our lives, so we can see all those 19th-Century paper documents on our screens. Where we’re going, we don’t need hard drives and memory chips. Instead, we’ll have ubiquitous access to the Semantic Web. Whether it goes on your wall or in your pocket, all devices are simply “screens” that can see the semantic web, and the screens will come in all sizes, from one centimeter square to wall-size. They will wrap around you or project onto the side of your igloo. They might just be built into your glasses. Ray Ozzie calls this your device mesh. Want to write a contract or design a house? Just grab any screen and log onto your online semantic desktop.

For consumers, there will be many benefits. Your online identity will be safer and more powerful. You’ll do everything you do today from your online semantic desktop. Your calendar will hook to all your activities, so it can keep up with you automatically and work with others’ calendars to actively help you coordinate your schedule. Your resume is always up to date, and interesting job offers flow in as they are created by employers – you can adjust the flow according to your desire for a new job. Your health records will stay online under your control, and you’ll choose who gets to see them. Your financial information will all be in one place, so you can direct what happens to it. Your taxes are always prepared. Your photos go straight from your camera to the server – no memory cards to lose. You’ll access all your social networks from one place. Lose your phone? No problem – take mine and log in. Want to watch any movie ever made? Listen to music you’ve never heard but really enjoy? No problem – the Semantic Web will stream it to you, and you’ll never manage or back-up your media collection again. All your assets and ownership are under your control – you’ll be able to see every mile your car has been driven, the temperature in every room of your house, and when the next train arrives at the subway stop near you. You’ll have full information portability so you can take your account from one vendor to another. All your information will live in the cloud and be woven into every product you use. You’ll have VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) tools that put you in control. You’ll work with marketers on your terms, not theirs. Your will won’t be a paper document; it will be an executable document that can work for you long after you’re gone. Services like FaceBook and Google will be child’s play compared to the services we’ll take for granted ten years from now. And big companies like Monster.com and eBay will have little or no audience, because the search engines that can see the open semantic web will replace them.

For businesses, the spaghetti of text and keywords that today serve as electronic mimics of our previous paper-and-pencil records will be replaced by meaningful, semantic documents that are like plug-and-play lego bricks: reusable modules of information that stay in one place and give your business more leverage than you can imagine. Gone are word docs and spreadsheets. Standard formats (like icards for safe transactions, XBRL for business reporting, RETS2 for real-estate listings, HR-XML for human resources, a standard semantic business language being developed by OAGI for all the most common business documents, and many others) will create a seamless web of integrated knowledge and information that make today’s business environment look primitive. What we call computing today will follow us wherever we go, keeping us better informed and more able to prevent and respond to problems than ever before. The new semantic metadata supply chain will streamline business and create global marketplaces that function at lightspeed. Everything, from money to photography to research to retailing to the legal framework upon which our laws are built will change to become meaningful, connected, and much more useful than it is today. There is infrastructure to be built, and Apple should help lead the effort to reap the rewards.

For professionals the world will change completely. You’ll do everything from your social semantic desktop – your control room that gives you access to everything and everyone you need. We’ll see the emergence of passive commerce and passive search – where you specify exactly what you’re looking for and it will find you, rather than the other way around. Creative people will use fully online tools to collaborate in semantic environments where everything plugs and plays together. Photographs and video will be tagged and joined in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine yet. Filmmakers will do everything digitally online, in a fully interactive environment where all sets, furniture, actors, and even lighting and weather effects will know how to work together seamlessly. And it will all be portable, because you can always grab anyone’s screen, log in, and be in your connected work environment.

Apple’s greatest asset is not the Mac or the iPhone but the Apple experience itself, which eventually will have to live at Mac.com, the lackluster “Digital Me” web service that adds almost no value to the Apple experience today and has no connectivity to other people. Soon, it will be a place where you can create text and spreadsheet documents, just like people have been doing at Live.com and GoogleDocs for three years already. Apple can do better. The site will have to transform from an island to a hub, from a storage site to a set of semantic cloud services. In essence, Mac.com is where the Macintosh will live for the next 25 years, not in some operating system that ships with expensive hardware. It will be a combination of the iPhone experience, the traditional Mac experience, and a new, “online desktop” experience yet to be invented. Almost everything Apple makes today will be virtual tomorrow. And it will have to be semantic – unambiguous, universal, interoperable, and connected like lego bricks to information everywhere. Apple has never understood online services, and that’s why it needs a leader who does. The Apple experience will live online, as a service. Specify what you want, and it will come to you – no more search, no more moving information from one place to another, no more attachments, and no more manually tracking things and events in the real world. In the semantic future, the drudgework is all done automatically.

One thing Apple should do immediately is buy a company called ZumoDrive and incorporate their technology into the Me.com experience. This is a big step in the right direction. People confuse memory with storage. You don’t need much memory if you use the entire Web as storage. We don’t need a 32GB iPhone! Apple – are you listening? No one needs a 32GB iPhone! I’d much rather have a small amount of local memory and have access to every song, every app, every file, and every piece of media ever made. ZumoDrive does this. It makes the Web your storage device (almost). It’s not yet the Semantic Web, but it’s a 21st-Century business model that will be a key part of the infrastructure. The relentless conversion of products to services continues – Apple needs to understand this.

Who am I?

Good question.

I was a grad student in computer science at Stanford when I bought my first Mac, a 512k, in 1985. When I worked at Pixar in 1986, I equipped it with a 10 Megabyte SCSI external hard drive from SuperMac. While working at Pixar, I painted the outside of my Mac to look like granite, and people loved it. So I started my own company painting Macintoshes, and even painted one for Malcolm Forbes. Soon after, I designed a typeface called Tekton, which became a favorite of Steve Jobs and one of the bestselling typefaces in history. I later produced a typeface called Zapfino, which still ships with every Macintosh sold today. I’ve been vegetarian for 30 years and wrote a book on the environment and global warming in 1990.

I built my first web site in 1993 and wrote the first book on web design. I helped teach the first generation of web designers and contributed in a small way to making the Web look the way it does today. I started one of the first online design and strategy agencies, which I later sold to KPMG. I’ve been writing about the Semantic Web for more than ten years. I’ve been on the keynote speaking circuit and have been working on and starting web-services companies since 1994. I’m known by most of the power players in the valley. I am writing a book on the Semantic Web and business that will be out at the end of this year. I started talking about the Semantic Web in 1998, before Tim Berners Lee coined the term. I am actively involved in the Semantic Web community, trying to accelerate it. I have the vision, passion, the showmanship and leadership skills Apple needs now.

Like Steve, I am an impatient perfectionist and a terrible manager. Unlike Steve, perhaps, I know my limits. Apple has built a tremendous team of creative people and world-class managers, headed by Tim Cook. Tim, who is a year younger than I am, is a better manager than I will ever be. Working with him, I would challenge the team to transform Apple into a superconnected 21st-Century company, one that puts the experience completely online and lets others build the commodity hardware. Tim needs me as much as I need him to keep Apple one step ahead of everyone else. Apple doesn’t have a management crisis, it has a leadership crisis.

We won’t do it on day one – there’s still plenty of milk left in the cow. Apple makes beautiful hardware, and for the next several years it should. And – who knows? – maybe a future semantic business model will let Apple continue to make hardware along the same lines as today’s iPhone: sell the hardware at cost and make the money on services. Apple may have a great future producing connected screens in all sizes and giving them away to make money on the services – but they won’t have hard disks and they won’t need much memory. They’ll simply turn on and see the Internet and the rest of the experience will take place online. On the other hand, Apple may want to get out of the hardware business entirely and let others give it away for free.

The future of work. The future of play. The future of Apple.

Microsoft is on a path to increasing irrelevance. Why follow them into the abyss? Transitioning to an online service company will take ten years, but it’s the least risky strategy Apple can adopt. At the end of ten years, 1) the Apple experience will have much greater market share than it has today, 2) Apple will be out of the profitable hardware business, and 3) Apple will follow the lead of IBM in building a profitable service-oriented business. It will take an openness that Apple has never embraced. It will mean a change to corporate culture, but one I believe the employees will embrace. It means investing in the civil engineering of the Semantic Web. Like our country at its recent turning point, what Apple needs most is an impresario – someone with the courage and vision to take the company in new directions.

Apple’s brand is owned by its customers, and its customers will soon demand much more than they are getting today. Don’t Apple’s shareholders deserve the same? As CEO, I pledge to …

  • keep Apple a fun place to work
  • keep the Apple experience delicious for consumers
  • make the Apple experience hyperconnected and eventually semantic
  • establish a semantic hub for collaboration, standards, and infrastructure
  • create a new online, collaborative design and publishing platform
  • expand market share into business areas where Apple has previously been weak

I applaud Steve for taking the company this far. The last 25 years have been spectacular. I encourage him to let others take the company forward, so the next 25 years are even better. I hope to have a good relationship with Steve and others on the board – we’ll need to work together to build Apple into the “insanely great” company of the future. I’d like us to work together at the beginning, so the transition goes smoothly (besides, I have a lot to learn from Steve). The company may not feel the crisis at this moment, but it’s coming. Rather than saying “I told you so,” I’d rather have the chance to do something about it before the industry whittles away the best parts of a wonderful company and a cherished brand.

I know what the odds are, but I am ready to come to Cupertino to pitch Steve and the board any time.

And Steve – I hope you feel better soon.

Sincerely,

David Siegel

Attention Apple shareholders! If you’re looking for someone to milk the last drop of profit out of the product lines that exist today, I’m not your guy. If you’re looking for renewed investment and serious market expansion of the Apple brand for the next ten years, write me in. Contact Apple Shareholder Relations and request that the board consider David Siegel as Apple’s next CEO.