Business History

Impressions of “On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple,” by Gil Amelio

On the Firing Line is the perfect companion to Steve Jobs: The Journey is the Reward. Both are histories of Apple. Both are written by people who personally dislike Steve Jobs. And both are written during periods when it was reasonable to conclude that Steve Jobs would fail. They even include some of the same characters in supporting roles, such as Steve Wozniak and Mike Markkula.

Indeed, if these were the only two books about Apple you read, the logical conclusion is that Apple was sabotaged from the beginning by Steve Jobs, who tragically returned years later to destroy it.

But first, let’s talk about Gill.

Gil Amelio is the CEO of Apple best known for

  • buying NeXT and bringing Steve Jobs back to Apple
  • controlling Apple in the period when it was closest to bankruptcy
  • lasting less than 2 years before being fired

In retrospect, the first is a company-saving decision that directly contributed to establishing the most profitable American company the world has ever known. The second bullet only magnifies the greatness of that accomplishment, and the third (being fired) adds a tragic, Jobs-like greatness to the career.

But – and this is what’s fantastic about On the Firing Line – the book is not written in retrospect. Like Journey is the Reward, it’s written in the heat of the moment. It’s fresh, raw, honest, and ironically written to prevent Gil Amelio from holding the reputation after Apple that he had before it.

Before Apple, Amelio had built a reputation as a turn-around artist (or “transformation” expert), taking high-tech manufacturing firms facing bad times and putting them on a healthy footing. His academic background (his secretary referred to him as “Dr. Amelio”) and industry experience, combined with Apple’s long-standing focus on manufacturing and selling hardware, made him seem like a natural fit. (That he served on Apple’s board was also a plus.)

But Amelio immediately ran into a painful culture clash that never ended. Previously, the companies he worked with were all industrial firms; Apple has always leaned into consumer fashion and mass luxury. From his first day in the office (where Amelio notes the lack of executive parking space) to after his last (where he criticizes the Gates-Jobs joint appearance as being fluff and not substantial), he effectively relates the pain and awkwardness he felt as seemingly meaningful contributions were not appreciated, and slick performances by Jobs were inexplicably rewarded.

Eager for a dramatic move, [Steve Jobs] called Bill Gates and gave him the deal I wouldn’t, handing over everything Gates had been pestering me for. But he failed to get in return the one essential element – a commitment that Microsoft would develop applications to run on the new Mac operating system based on Steve’s NeXT software. Instead, he settled for cash, a sum Microsoft could write a check for without blinking. Bill got everything he wanted in a deal fashioned out of what Fortune called “Gates’ Machiavellian largess and Jobs’ self-aggrandizing salesmanship.”

Amelio’s confusion is aptly summarized by the following note:

Yet sales were lower at the end than they were in the beginning. How do you explain that? After chewing over this question from every angle, my own answer was that there’s a subjective element in the way people react to Apple having very little to do with how good the products are, and a lot to do with what they read in the newspapers and how comfortable they are with the state of the company. Gil Amelio, On the Firing Line

So even though he purchased NeXT and brought back Steve Jobs, he did not seem to know why he was doing so. From his perspective, it was a reasonable approach to accelerating the release of an Apple-owned OS. Alternate options – such as Sun Solaris, Microsoft Windows NT, and BeOS were compared on their merits and came up short. That he was bringing back a marketing and supply-chain genius with a passion for design did not seem to come up.

Ironically, though, in at least two areas, Amelio did predict the future. He notes that much of Apple’s best design is locked up in a committee process he felt powerless to overcome, and notes explicitly Jonny Ive as a shining star in the company.

I found it highly frustrating that I could not get the Apple engineers to appreciate design. They were so tuned in to performance, features, operating systems, and speed that I had more pushback on industrial design than any of the other DSUVs, which frankly surprises me to this day, since Apple R&D is filled with engineers and engineering managers like Jonathan Ive – among the most visual and creative people I’ve ever met.
Gil Amelio, On the Firing Line

And Amelio predicted – accurately – that Steve Jobs would ultimately have Mike Eisner fired as CEO of Disney.

[Steve Jobs] conquered Silicon Valley. Michael Eisner watch out; Steve Jobs now has a new talent on his resume: displaying the CEO. The Walt Disney Company could be next.
Gil Amelio, On the Firing Line, pg. 276

Ultimately, Amelio was a poor fit for Apple’s culture, did not have the experience he thought he did in the industry and misunderstood the path forward for Apple. He played an important role in saving the company – by purchasing NeXT – making himself easily replaceable by his successor, Steve Jobs, as well as by championing Jobs’ future design chief, Jonny Ive.

I read On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple in the hardcover edition.

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