Today thousands of employees of Apple Computer Inc. will surrender their jobs, and the projects they championed will be pushed out like a burning barge cut loose to protect the mother ship.
That alone makes March 14, 1997, Apple's darkest day. Not so much in numbers--some 4,000 of Apple's best and brightest have already been ablated over the last year in wrenching reorganizations that never took hold.
But dark in another: The Apple that caught the imagination of much of the world in the 1980s, the Apple that PC companies copied in the 1990s, that company goes away today.
Make no mistake. Today's announcement regarding Apple's massive restructuring isn't about reclaiming the Cupertino, Calif., company's past glory, as CEO Gilbert Amelio might have it. The truth of the matter is that this is Apple's last stand.
If Amelio's desperate downsizing plan doesn't work--and judging by history, there is no real reason for optimism--Apple will be left too small, too peripheral, to make a difference. And an Apple that can't make a difference is not worth contemplating.
When he took over the company a year ago, Amelio wasn't so much appointed as anointed CEO, following the dark years under Michael Spindler. After all, Amelio had revitalized moribund National Semiconductor Corp. And as an Apple director, he correctly identified the company's main weaknesses as uncompetitive pricing, waning developer support and declining product quality. Those contributed to Apple's market share falling from about 15 percent in 1992 to about 6 percent today. The company lost $867 million over the last year.
But Amelio did not identify an equally large difficulty: the company culture. Apple has always empowered managers to do great things--the cult of the individual is no stronger in any other American company. In the 1980s, such empowerment freed Jef Raskin to create the predecessor to the Macintosh. Strong individual contributions produced such groundbreaking technologies as the laser printer, AppleTalk networking technology and QuickTime multimedia software.
But the same empowered individuals could also kill or delay the company's best efforts. Plans to license the Macintosh operating system, seen in retrospect as a strategy that could have powered Apple forward, were debated until they lived no more. Meanwhile, delivery of Copland, the successor to the Mac OS, was delayed for years, until Apple was forced to all but kill the project and buy Steve Jobs' NeXT Inc. as a just-in-time replacement.
So when Amelio outlined out his rebuilding plan last July 22, the troops saluted--then continued to march in their own directions. His frustration built to the point where he chastised employees, in a recent companywide broadcast, "Don't put me in this position again, dammit."
Today is Amelio's last chance to get everyone on the same page. By having the company focus on what it does best, in areas such as electronic publishing, Apple could in theory once again rev its cash engine, persuade developers to write great applications for the Macintosh and restore public confidence.
In theory. But Apple appears to be the Incredible Shrinking Star, the nova that has now expended all its energy and is collapsing upon itself like a black hole, where no light escapes.
Can Amelio refire the Apple drive and spirit? We start finding out today.