Even Steve Jobs Got It Wrong Sometimes

steve jobs

The late Steve Jobs, like other tech geniuses, was known for his willingness to be bold, take risks and defy conventional thinking.

That philosophy necessarily resulted in both breakthroughs and belly flops.

The breakthroughs were huge - really huge - from the Macintosh's graphic interface to the iPod to the iPhone. The successes not only overwhelmed the failures - they changed the world.

Oh, and one more thing - those successes also have made Apple the most valuable company on the planet.

But the late Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) CEO's "failures" can reveal as much about how he was able to re-invent entire industries as can his amazing achievements.

So now, on the third anniversary of his untimely death (Oct. 5), to encourage any budding geniuses looking at Jobs for inspiration, here's a look at nine times Jobs didn't nail it on the first try:

  • No. 1: The Apple III, 1980
    The idea for the Apple III was sound: a professional personal computer aimed at the enterprise market. But the execution was awful, and it was mostly Steve Jobs' fault. Seeking to make a sleeker product, Jobs insisted on a chassis too small for the components required, and he refused to let engineers install a cooling fan. As a result, the motherboard would quickly overheat, causing the chips to pop out of their sockets and the machine to malfunction. Trashed by the tech media of the day, the Apple III had lousy sales and missed a huge opportunity to take the lead in the enterprise market. That left the door open for the IBM PC, which arrived a year later sporting Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq: MSFT) PC DOS. When the Apple III was discontinued in 1984, only 65,000 units had been sold and the company was out $60 million.

What came next was not a product, but a decision, that turned out much differently than Jobs intended...

  • No. 2:  Recruiting John Sculley as CEO, 1983
    With Apple's original president, Mike Markkula, wanting to retire, it was decided that bringing in an outside big name would bolster the young company's reputation and "put an adult in charge." Jobs had long admired PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE: PEP) CEO John Sculley for his marketing savvy, and promptly lured him to Apple. While their relationship worked at first, their differing styles soon began to clash. By 1985 the Apple board had grown wary of Jobs' tendency to devote expensive resources to untested ideas, and ordered Sculley to "contain" Jobs. That led to the infamous moment when Apple's board sided with Sculley and forced Jobs out of the company he founded.
  • No. 3:  NeXT Inc. (1985)
    Jobs founded NeXT after he left Apple in 1985. The NeXT system was in many ways ahead of its time, but sales were never very good, as the company had targeted too small a market. NeXT was forced to exit the hardware business in 1993, and the remaining software business might not have survived had Jobs not sold the company to Apple late in 1996. But the remnants of this struggling company became the foundation for much of Jobs' later successes, with the NeXT software becoming the foundation of Mac OS X and Jobs taking over as Apple CEO several months later.
  • No. 4:  The One-Button Mouse (1983-2005)
    Jobs' belief in simplicity resulted in a years-long obsession with the one-button mouse, even long after Windows PCs had proven the advantages of a multi-button mouse. Eventually he caved, but instructed Apple engineers to come up with a unique, innovative design. That became 2005's Mighty Mouse.
  • No. 5:  The "Hockey Puck" Mouse (1998)
    Jobs really has had a bad history with mice. While the original iMac series was the product that breathed new life into the company, the round-shaped mouse that came with it was one of Apple's most hated accessories. Users had a hard time grasping it and couldn't tell by holding it which way was up, which sent the cursor flying in unexpected directions. Apple replaced it with the more conventional (but still single-button) Apple Pro Mouse in 2000.
  • No. 6:  The Power Mac G4 Cube (2000)
    To his credit, Jobs has always sought elegance and simplicity in his products, a trait that gave us many of Apple's best ideas but, as the G4 Cube demonstrated, could be taken to extremes. As with the Apple III two decades earlier, Jobs insisted the Cube have no cooling fan, instead relying on the elevated design. While beautiful, the Cube was underpowered, expensive, and prone to overheating. Jobs reluctantly put it "on ice" just one year after it launched.
  • No. 7:  ROKR (2005)
    Before the iPhone there was the ROKR, which Jobs introduced with much fanfare. The problem was that Motorola's phone was unexciting and held a mere 100 songs, and transferring them from a computer was agonizingly slow. It couldn't download songs over the cellular network, either, although that would not have been any faster back then. While the ROKR was a flop, it probably galvanized in Jobs' mind the need for a truly revolutionary smartphone, which he would spring on the world two years later.
  • No. 8:  Music Subscriptions (2001-2011)
    Ever since the debut of the first iPod, Jobs derided music subscription services. "People want to own their music," he often said. With subscriptions, the music goes away when you stop paying. Jobs was right about some people - especially older generations - but others preferred the subscription model as a way of getting access to more music for less. It's hard to say if Jobs would eventually have seen the value in offering both options, but his successor, Tim Cook, made the leap in May when he bought Beats Electronics, which brought a music subscription service in addition to its iconic headphones.
  • No. 9:  Mobile Screen Sizes (2007-2011)
    Jobs' steadfast belief in his own aesthetic judgment also prevented Apple from making the iPhone screen any larger than 4 inches until just this fall with the two larger iPhone 6 models. Jobs believed that a phone any larger could not be operated with one hand. He had a point, but many users are willing to make that sacrifice to get the benefits of a larger screen. We don't know if Jobs would have agreed to the bigger iPhones, but strong sales of the large Samsung Galaxy phones just might have convinced him.

Follow me on Twitter @DavidGZeiler.

UP NEXT: While most of Steve Jobs' failures have been largely forgotten, the foundation he forged is one of the reasons Apple has a good chance to become the world's first $1 trillion company within the next several years. It might sound far-fetched, but the numbers do add up...


About the Author

David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.

Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.

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