Scott Forstall: When Innovation and Abrasiveness Collide

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Scott Forstall: When Innovation and Abrasiveness Collide

Apple’s Scott Forstall was a brilliant innovator — but when his reputation for abrasiveness eclipsed his genius, he found himself without the job he’d held for the past 15 years.

He found out the hard way that even though he’d dedicated most of his adult life to the late Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple and its products, genius isn’t all you need to stay successful. Sometimes you need to know how to play the corporate game as well.

Every Superman has his kryptonite, and his was his personality. Co-workers never had a problem with his inventiveness. After all, he was the architect of the vaunted iOS platform and headed Apple’s powerful mobile division, helping to propel it to one of the most powerful companies in the world. But according to the New York Times, his abrasive style and resistance was his undoing.

Then two problems reared their ugly heads on the iPhone features he was in charge of developing: Maps and Siri. And suddenly, the man people once thought would follow Steve Jobs as CEO instead followed his idol in another way — Apple asked him to leave, making him one of the industry’s most closely watched free agents.

In the Beginning

Forstall spent most of his adult professional life with Steve Jobs. In 1991, he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in symbolic systems, received his master’s degree from Stanford the following year, and was a very young man when he and Jobs first joined forces. He first worked with Steve Jobs at NeXT, where Jobs landed when Apple fired him.

Eventually, Apple purchased NeXT and brought back Jobs, and he came along for the ride. In 1997, Jobs put him in charge of designing user interfaces for Apple’s Macintosh line.

His genius was quickly apparent. He became a leading designer of Mac’s Aqua interface and its water-themed visual cues. Then in 2003, just a little over 10 years out of college, the company promoted him to senior vice president.

But his real claims to fame were yet to come. In 2005 Jobs pitted the Forstall-led Macintosh team against Tony Fadell’s iPod team to create their future smartphone’s software. Forstall won the competition to create iOS, a system that radically changed the marketplace for mobile technology with the first iPhone’s release in 2007.

A Man of Many Patents

Forstall fortified power as one of Apple’s best-known innovators while creating iOS. He was one of Apple’s most prolific inventors, with his name on 166 pending patent applications, more than anyone else’s at Apple.

“If this guy is who the data seems to imply he is, letting him leave is a huge deal,” Erin-Michael Gill, managing director and chief intellectual property Office at MDB, told Business Insider.

His patents are for products at the core of iOS. Gill noted that just by reading over the patents, it’s clear he had a hand in everything Apple did in mobile over the years. But he had a serious problem brewing, because when you take credit for work, you need to be ready to take the blame when something doesn’t work right. But, that wasn’t how he worked.

Playing the Game

Forstall’s problem was never his talent. In fact, his talent is likely what kept him working for the past 15 years.

But his abrasive personality was another matter. By all indications, his quirks were fine as long as Jobs was alive and running the company. Jobs might have even seen something of himself in Forstall and appreciated the similarities.

Many people can’t get along with their co-workers and are indispensable because they are so incredibly talented at their jobs — and his personality was likely overlooked for a long time because he was just so good.

Jobs himself may have helped create the monster he became among his workers. Jobs was notorious for pitting his top inventors and managers against each other to drive innovation, a strategy that pushed out some of the most advanced tech gadgets in the world. However, it also caused a great deal of division and hard feelings at Apple over the years.

Forstall was often mentioned as a potential “CEO in Waiting,” but his relationships with fellow Apple executives were testy at best. For example, other executives, especially Jony Ive, absolutely refused to meet with him if Cook wasn’t in the same room to act as peacekeeper.

Businessweek, in a profile written just before Jobs’ death, described him in many ways as being a “mini-Steve,” which in the end proved to be a mixed blessing.

Like Jobs, he often took the stage for device releases, particularly Siri. And like Jobs, he was known as a tough manager, and could be obsessive over even the smallest details. He even resembled Jobs somewhat, particularly when he wore black shoes, jeans and a black zippered sweater to go on stage.

But Jobs wasn’t loved by all his employees, and neither was he. While he reportedly had the intense loyalty of the engineers below him, a number of high-ranking executives left Apple because they found him too difficult to work with.

And it wasn’t just the executives. According to Businessweek, one former team member said he left Apple after he got tired of hearing Forstall say “Steve wouldn’t like that.” Several other frustrated engineers left his group and moved on to other Silicon Valley companies.

He also took credit for other people’s work, according to another article. Former associates also claimed he routinely pushed blame off on others — in political, ambitious and divisive moves.

Fadell, who competed with him to develop the iPhone and at one time also named as a possible successor for Jobs, told the BBC he believes Forstall got what he deserved when Cook fired him. “I think what happened was deserved and justified and he deserved what he got. People in Cupertino were cheering when that happened.”

But, that attitude brought a lot of respect inside and outside of Apple.

“I once referred to Scott as Apple’s chief a-hole,” former Apple software engineer Mike Lee, who left the company in 2010, told Businessweek. “And I didn’t mean it as a criticism. I meant it as a compliment. You could say the same thing about Steve Jobs.”

The Downfall of Forstall

Being political, ambitious, divisive and abrasive works if you’re on top of your game, but when mistakes happen, even the mightiest man can fall. It happened to Jobs, and it was about to happen to Forstall as well.

Maps and Siri, both hobbled by problems, was his Waterloo moment. Suddenly, his arrogance was no longer a laughing matter.

Maps, which debuted with the iPhone 5 as a replacement for Google Maps, had several highly publicized glitches. Cook wanted him, behind the Maps creation, to apologize publicly for the problems in the spirit of an increasing push for transparency and responsiveness. He refused. Ultimately, Cook made the public apology, a rare move for the CEO — and a final blow to his career at Apple.

The problems with Maps followed many glitches in Siri, which turned a much-anticipated voice recognition program into a public joke, further tarnishing his once-golden reputation.

But even when Cook announced his release, he carefully noted the prickly innovator would remain part of the team as his own personal adviser. Cook knew the rest of the company had enough, but he still has a lot to offer Apple.

Where Does This Leave Apple?

His iOS responsibilities pass to two key Apple players, Craig Federighi and Jony Ive. However, while both men are top executives, neither has nearly the patents pending that he filed. Federighi, who will lead OSX and iOS, has 16 patents pending, while Ive, leading interface design, has 51.

The patents are much different from each other, too. Ive’s patents cover design, while Forstall’s cover iOS itself. For example, his name is second behind Jobs’ on the patent that shows how the iPhone and iPad work.

And while Apple designs are innovative in themselves, how they function determines if the company will continue to grow. After all, smartphones so closely resemble each it’s often difficult to tell them apart — even when they’re placed side-by-side. Questions still remain over whether anyone can replace Forstall, the architect for much of Apple’s functionality, and can fill his shoes.

By releasing him, Cook pushes out one of the key people responsible for developing the company’s signature devices. Moving ahead, Apple needs that innovation to fend off Android and Windows, both fierce competitors.

There may be room for him at another company, and Silicon Valley’s businesses are lining up bids for his service. After all, one can only imagine what a man of his talents can do for a struggling company like Research in Motion, which is trying to reclaim earlier success. With Forstall at RIM’s helm, or even as its chief innovator, it may regain its creative edge — and an OS that could put it back at the top.

He stumbled with Maps and Siri, and his persona exacerbated the situation. But at the right company, he may still thrive. After all, Jobs often accepted and even praised his thorny behavior and the man behind iOS will have his pick of future options.

That’s not to say he won’t one day come back to Apple. Jobs himself was pushed out of the company for many of the same personality reasons, combined with some product launches that just didn’t work — and ceremoniously returned a few years later to lead Apple into the top tech company role it enjoys today.

He’s still young — not too young to change his attitude, but still young enough to have great ideas and innovation in his future. The setback may be just what he needs to push from behind the shadows of Steve Jobs.

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