Apple and Citrix approached corporate crisis points using video to rally the troops, set direction.
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The history of computing is not always kind to John Sculley, the former Apple CEO who was recruited by Steve Jobs and in 1985 wound up in a power struggle with Jobs that Jobs lost. And when Jobs lost, Apple lost its essential visionary--just how visionary and how essential wouldn't become clear until years later.
One of the ways Sculley tried to keep the vision alive was with video. In particular, the Knowledge Navigator video Apple produced in the early 1990s, which at the time was more science fiction than product fact, but proved to the industry for a time that Apple was still a visionary company.
I heard this story at a South Florida Technology Alliance meeting, which Sculley attended because he now lives in Palm Beach, Fla., and serves as an investor in and adviser to a number of technology startups in the area. It turned out that Citrix CEO Mark Templeton had a similar story about how his company had survived a "near-death experience" after the departure of its founder and used video as a tool to set a new direction.
This topic struck me as an appropriate one for The BrianYard because collaboration technology vendors such as Cisco often talk to me about video distribution and playback, as well as realtime video collaboration. A videoconference lets you see reality at a distance. Offering a recording of a videoconference or webconference enhances its value. But let's say a kind word for slick corporate video: Only something produced like a commercial or a TV show can set aside reality and show what could be.
Whatever head banging went on between Sculley and Jobs back in the 1980s, today Sculley expresses only the deepest admiration and respect for Jobs. At the time, Apple's board refused to make Jobs CEO of the young company. Sculley, a president of Pepsi, said he was recruited because Jobs was fascinated by the way Pepsi had gained market share against Coca-Cola on the basis of marketing initiatives like the "Pepsi Challenge." Jobs wanted Sculley to help him turn Apple into a lifestyle brand--based on an experience, rather than a technology alone.
Sculley became CEO in 1983, and by 1985 Jobs had essentially been relieved of his duties at Apple and drifted away to found Next Computer. More than a decade later, in 1996, Apple paid $429 million to buy Next and bring Jobs back into the company, finally allowing him to become CEO.
Between Jobs' departure and his own forced departure in 1993, Sculley said he actually tried to follow through on many elements of Jobs' vision for product development, but the momentum steadily faded. The idea for the Knowledge Navigator video followed from a discussion with Alan Kay, the computer scientist who created the Smalltalk programming language and worked on the development of early graphical user interfaces at Xerox PARC. Kay suggested that Apple had already plundered Xerox PARC's best ideas and needed to go looking for some new ones, so he and Sculley embarked on a tour of startups and research labs looking for new ideas.
As they assembled their ideas for what the computer of the future might look like, Sculley got an opportunity to ask George Lucas for advice on putting those ideas on screen, using special effects. Lucas assured him it could be done, and Apple hired a production company to do the actual work.
The centerpiece of the video was the story of a university professor assembling materials for a lecture using a multimedia tablet that looks a little like an iPad (if you squint hard), with touchscreen controls much like today's, but voice recognition and an anthropomorphized onscreen attendant that goes beyond today's technology. Sculley said he takes no credit for the iPad, except perhaps to have planted the seed of an idea that some engineer later followed through on, with Jobs' guidance.
The video also celebrates some of Apple's early concepts for Internet software and composite applications, OpenDoc and CyberDog, which didn't succeed on their own. But some of the multimedia applications envisioned in the video look a lot like the Web 2.0 applications of the day.
Apple had deeper problems than could solved by a video, and came right to the brink of bankruptcy prior to Jobs' return. "There's a thin line between success and failure in high technology," Sculley said. "I don't know if Microsoft ever had a near-death experience, but everyone else has had one."
Citrix's Templeton readily agreed with that. He faced a similar crisis when he was appointed to the top job in 2001, shortly after the departure of founder and former CEO Ed Iacobucci in 2000. Because its original product was a multiuser version of Windows used for thin-client computing, Citrix faced a recurring existential crisis over renegotiating licensing terms with Microsoft. Now it needed to find a new vision beyond that of Iacobucci, the former IBM engineer who had built the company.
This was before Citrix acquired Expertcity in 2003, forming the basis of its Citrix Online division (GoToMeeting, GoToAssist, and related products), or the 2007 acquisition of XenSource, which made Citrix a bigger player in virtualization. Its biggest acquisition to date at that point, of Web portal software maker Sequoia Software, turned out to be a failure.
Citrix was a "one product company" operating too close to the edge, Templeton said. Seeking a way of defining what its next generation of products would look like, he said, "I remembered that Apple made this video called the Knowledge Navigator." After having his staff seek out a copy of the video, he decided that Citrix needed to do something similar to define its vision of the computer system of the future, independently of the technologies it was ready to deliver today. Instead, this would be an Apple-style vision of computing as an experience, rather than a technology.
The Citrix Virtual Workplace video "was completely inspired by the Knowledge Navigator," Templeton said. It showed a vision of highly network-centric, device independent, and mobile technologies--things Citrix is still working to deliver today. When it was shown at a company user conference in 2001, the audience didn't know what to make of it, Templeton said, but ultimately, that was all right."
"It really brought the team together and the vision together," Templeton said. "The engineering team kind of looked at that and said, 'Oh, that's what you guys want us to build.'" And they've been working on it since.
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