Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Can Lenovo Become the Next Apple?

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What I find particularly fascinating this year is that Apple appears be ignoring critical parts of Steve Jobs’ playbook, while Lenovo is avidly trying to recreate what is likely the most critical part—the magic of Steve Jobs himself.

This came to mind last week at South by Southwest where Ashton Kutcher was personally handing out Lenovo tablets that he co-designed with the company. And Lenovo isn’t going small either. They recently purchased Motorola, which has led the cell phone market a number of times over the last couple decades, and IBM’s x86 server division in order to rapidly ramp to Apple’s potential scale (although Apple wasn’t successful in the server market).

What I find fascinating, given Apple’s massive success during Jobs’ tenure, is that almost no one—not even Apple—is attempting to replicate Jobs’ model. You’d figure there would be a line of firms trying to become the next Apple, but right now there is only Lenovo.

Haunted Empire

This week I read through the book Haunted Empire largely because Apple is doing its level best to keep folks from reading it and because it is the first book that talks in depth about what happened at Apple. I did the same thing with iCon: Steve Jobs and for the very same reason. I figured any book a company didn’t want you to read must be interesting, and in both cases I wasn’t disappointed.

Haunted Empire compares Jobs’ Apple to Cook’s and points out the critical aspects which are missing from the post-Jobs’ Apple. There are three components that jumped out at me: micromanagement, product ownership and personal advocacy.

Micromanagement typically doesn’t scale past the startup phase of a company. Jobs’ tenacity with that management style likely drove his stress through the roof. By contrast, Cook doesn’t micromanage, and I actually think that is a positive change—certainly one that should help him to survive being CEO.

But the other two qualities—product ownership and personal advocacy—are unique in the technology industry. Jobs effectively owned Apple products from cradle to grave. He made sure each one met his expectations, and every successful product that Apple released while Jobs was there had his fingerprints on it. He was invested, deeply, in the products. (He wasn’t invested in the servers, which is likely why they failed.)

In addition, he personally pitched the products and was a detail fiend when it came to that pitch. From announcement through marketing, Jobs personally made sure that folks saw the product in its best light.

These two critical aspects were lost at Apple when Jobs passed.

Lenovo: The New Empire

Lenovo is already too complex to micromanage, so the firm already uses the better delegation management model that Cook has put in place. Unlike Apple, Lenovo wasn’t dependent on being micromanaged and so isn’t experiencing the pain that Haunted Empire reports Apple is experiencing.

However, Lenovo has decided to see if they can use Ashton Kutcher to recreate the passion and the advocacy that made Jobs so effective. There are some amazing similarities in the backgrounds of both men, and the fact that Kutcher actually played Steve Jobs in a movie suggests that Kutcher would have a unique view of the man.

Kutcher has nothing to do with Lenovo’s servers or enterprise products (Jobs also hated that stuff) and is focusing only on the consumer products that Jobs also loved. Both men had/have something to prove: Jobs that he wasn’t a failure because he was fired by Apple in the 1980s, and Kutcher because he was widely criticized as a bad emulation of Jobs. They were/are driven to succeed to prove their critics wrong.

The end game isn’t here yet, but Lenovo may end up with someone who is an even better pitch man than Jobs and who has a similar passion for creating amazing products.

Will it Work?

I’ve always believed, because I saw Jobs’ makeover in the 1980s, that you could find a person that could do at least some of the things Jobs did uniquely well—like husband and pitch products. The question is whether that person can be successful if they don’t have the near absolute authority that Jobs had.

If Kutcher is overridden on a critical aspect of the products he is overseeing, he won’t have the passion for them. That passion is critical for the pitch phase of demand generation, and its absence would break the model even if the change made the product better objectively. In addition, engineering-driven companies often favor engineering over design, while sexy products typically have a design bias. To get into Apple’s game, the product has to be sexy.

In any case, this will be an interesting experiment. I’m fascinated that out of all the companies in the world, including Apple, the only firm that is attempting to recreate the magical part of Steve Jobs’ Apple is Lenovo. The industry needs magic—here is hoping they are successful.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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