Take one Gil and Call me in the Mourning

Let’s talk about Dr. Gil Amelio. Who, you ask? Don’t worry; you aren’t alone. I know people with Apple tattoos who can’t place the name.

Gil was the CEO of Apple from 1996 to 1997. Gil saved Apple almost by accident when he bought Steve Jobs’ company NeXT. To be clear, he just bought some software and got Steve Jobs as a “special advisor,” sort of like a free gift with purchase kind of thing.

Steve was a pretty efficient advisor to the CEO. For example, he advised Gil he was out of a job.

Even though he was painfully naive, Gil deserves some credit for writing the check that brought Steve back to Apple. As the old saying goes, nothing in life is guaranteed except death, taxes, and being upstaged by Steve Jobs.

The thing is, and I can’t stress this enough, literally everyone knew Gil was going to be replaced by Steve Jobs with the exception of Gil himself. Hell, his own wife saw it coming. How do we know this? Because he wrote a book about his time at Apple, and it’s fascinating.

Originally published in 1998, and long out of print, Gil’s book “On the Firing Line” it is a thorough account of all that was wrong with Apple in the 90s, not the least of which was Gil himself at times. Much of the book comes across as genuine, lots of it matches stories I’ve heard from old colleagues, and parts are just painfully folksy. At one point he recalls telling his wife “smile, sweetie, it’s the second best thing to do with your lips.” Out of respect for his wife, I’ll assume the first was kissing.

To be clear, I’m not setting out to write a hit piece here. Gil did some essential things. He hired Fred Anderson, the CFO who almost singlehandedly made sure Apple had the cash it needed to operate. Gil presided over an unprecedented renegotiation of Apple’s debt, supported by his personal relationship with investors who bet on his previous company when it was in the dumps. Though you may not know his name, every Apple product you touch exists in part because of Gil Amelio. The software that powers your Mac, iPhone, iPad, and literally every other Apple device is possible because Gil bought NeXT in 1997. History won’t remember Gil for these things. At best he was just that guy who was fired by Steve Jobs; at worst he was an ignorant bozo. Of course, the reality is anything but black and white.

Apple B.S. (Before Steve)

Believe it or not, Steve Jobs wasn’t the CEO of Apple from the very beginning. Most people know Steve was fired, and many assume he was in charge of Apple at some point. Not so. Steve always reported to someone else and was never truly in charge of Apple before he came back in 1998. This, friends, is how you can get fired from your own company.

John Scully was hired as Apple’s CEO after Steve made a now famous argument about soft drinks. Six years later Scully was pushed out in favor of Michael Spindler, the least discussed Apple CEO ever. If Spindler wanted to add some stability he failed. If he wanted to out-crazy Scully, he earned an A for effort. Were it not for Spindler’s weekly panic attacks and public meltdowns we may have never gotten to Gil. The course of history would have been altered if Spindler got his hands on a bottle of Xanax. No, seriously.

Ironically Gil was the only CEO with a technical background. He helped invent the CCD, the most important part of digital cameras. Scully came from Pepsi and was a marketing guy to the core. In all fairness, he conceived of the game changing Pepsi Challenge, a commercial where ordinary people tried Pepsi and Coke in a blind taste test. Amazingly every single person in the commercials preferred Pepsi. Every damn time! This was marketing in the 80s and Scully was the most ballyhooed marketer known to man. For some strange reason, this didn’t directly translate to running a technology company. Then there was Michael Spindler, and who the fuck knows what he did he wasn’t hyperventilating? He was known to work manic hours, an admirable trait as long as you have something to show for it. I can’t think of a single thing Spindler accomplished as CEO. When it came time to fire Spindler Gil was ready to take the helm. As a board member and successful turnaround artist the powers that be tapped him to be the new CEO. He couldn’t have been worse than Spindler so why the hell not? To his credit, Gil was well respected for fixing serious problems at National Semiconductor, a chip company that was running out of time and cash before he arrived. By all accounts, Gil had saved one company, and hopes were high that he could do the same for Apple. After all, National Semiconductor specialized in making components for manufacturers. Apple sold entire computers with specialized software to end users. Close enough (give or take, you know, everything).

Tune in next time for another chapter: What’s Open, Doc? You can follow trev.com on Twitter, or subscribe RSS Feed, or send an angry e-mail.

Happy Mac

Sometimes the clothes
do not make the man.