I’ve never met Steve Jobs. And while I worked for Mr. Morita for many years, we never met face to face.
But I knew the culture at Sony and joined it because of the aura that Mr. Morita projected. Sony was an innovative Japanese company – an oxymoron of sorts, given the copycat stereotype prevalent at the time – that shockingly wasn’t afraid of hiring and trusting non-Japanese executives.
Mr. Morita, from what I knew of him from friends and colleagues, wasn’t a micromanager. He liked things. As a matter of fact, he was know to be “Mister Yes,” while his somber #2, Norio Ohga, was known as “Mister No.” Mr. Morita was a positive force in an optimistic company.
Steve Jobs, from what I know of him from friends and colleagues who do know him personally, is quite the opposite.
A micromanager, an autocrat, and one highly secretive of virtually any detail having to do with this company. These same people will also tell me that he is unsurpassingly brilliant. He’s arrogant because he’s right. I tried to interview a number of people associated with Apple for Killing Giants. The Apple omerta is alive and well. The mafia is more open to conversation. Getting the inside story on a Mexican drug lord would have been easier. At least the people would have been less afraid to talk.
Sony never recovered from Mr. Morita’s stroke. When he handed over the reins of the company in 1994 to his hand-picked successor, Mr. Ohga, the company was at the top of its game. Mr. Ohga was the moral equivalent of the COO and fully capable of handling the expanding empire of consumer electronics, music, movies and cultural coolness. You ask anyone in the world to close their eyes and picture how Sony would make a product picked at random – a toothbrush, a car seat, an ice cream maker – and they’d know what it felt like, what sounds it made, how the finish would look. Sony was an ecosystem, a mindset and a icon.
It didn’t last. Mr. Morita provided more than just the leadership. His presence filled the gaps. He was an intangible that couldn’t be replaced by a functional head.
Apple finds itself potentially in this same predicament. With Jobs taking his third leave of absence, the company is left with a highly capable manager at the helm at the peak of its strength.
The problems, if they come, will come slowly. The intangibles will begin to slip. Odd decisions that once would be thought of as strokes of genius will be questioned and won’t turn out as expected. And others will emerge to out-Apple Apple, as Samsung (and Apple, not for nothing) did to Sony.
As a fan of the company and admirer of what the man has accomplished, I hope I’m wrong. But history isn’t on Apple’s side.