Once criticized from within and without, Sculleyhopes to defy the naysayers again with Newton


June 15, 1992|By Rory O'Connor | Rory O'Connor,Knight-Ridder News Service

San Jose, Calif. -- In 1983, in a story now firmly embedded in the folklore of Silicon Valley, Apple Computer's intense young boss, Steve Jobs, persuaded an unassuming, middle-aged soft drink executive from New York City to become chief executive of the young company by issuing a challenge: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?"

Now, nine years after leaving Pepsi-Cola and seven years after ousting Mr. Jobs from the company he co-founded, Apple's chairman and chief executive officer, John Sculley, stands poised to meet that challenge. After building a $6.6 billion company on the strength of Mr. Jobs' Macintosh computer, Mr. Sculley now hopes to make Apple truly his own by introducing a dramatically new kind of computing device, one that could transform the company, reinvigorate the computer industry and -- perhaps -- launch the 1990s equivalent of the personal computer revolution.

Mr. Sculley, 53, recently unveiled a diminutive box code-named Newton. It is the first example of an "information appliance" -- a pocket-size portable computing device that millions of people could use for work, entertainment, personal organization, education and communicating with people around the world.

Although its success is far from guaranteed, Newton represents the first glimpse of technology's future. Many people now credit Mr. Sculley with shaping that future, although he came to Apple as a savvy marketer and business organizer who was never expected to inherit Mr. Jobs' role as the guardian of Apple's technical vision.

"When he took that job he was widely criticized within Apple and widely laughed at without," said Richard Shaffer, a New York industry analyst and newsletter publisher. "But Apple is making the right moves, ones that will become apparent over the next year."

Mr. Sculley named himself chief technical officer in 1990 and placed himself in charge of the company's most advanced research projects. Analysts say that Mr. Sculley has demonstrated an unexpected comprehension of computer technology and understands what consumers will want to do with it. That, they say, may be the key to Apple's survival: As growth slows and profit margins contract in the personal computer business, Mr. Sculley's vision of the future could make Apple the leader in a new, and potentially far more lucrative, market -- what Mr. Sculley himself calls "the mother of all industries."

It is a risky vision.

Apple plans to finish the decade as a remarkably different company than the one Mr. Sculley forced Mr. Jobs to leave in 1985. It is staking much of its future on an untested hope for Newton and similar devices, which Mr. Sculley calls personal digital assistants.

The seeds of this change were planted 20 years ago by another visionary, Apple Fellow Alan Kay, while Mr. Sculley was still a self-described "obsessive misfit" cola marketer. Insiders say that Mr. Sculley often embraces as his own the ideas of many of the top Apple engineers and programmers who have his ear, leading some observers to say that Mr. Sculley shouldn't get credit for divining the future of the industry.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see these trends," said Pieter Hartsook, a Macintosh newsletter publisher in Alameda, Calif. "I wouldn't say Sculley is a visionary. He's very good at seeing where the market is going and what the company needs to do to be in the right place at the right time with the products it needs."

But most outsiders who know Mr. Sculley say that he has gone from technology observer to technology student -- he once had a technical assistant called "Tutor to the President" -- to futurist. Along the way, in 1987, he outlined a 21st century portable personal computer called the Knowledge Navigator that provided its owner with a wealth of information access and communications controlled by speech and touch. Newton is the first tangible evidence that Mr. Sculley and Apple are on the road to creating it.

Indeed, some analysts credit Mr. Sculley with not only setting Apple's direction for the next decade, but with being one of the chief architects of the computer industry's future. "Sculley," said Dataquest analyst Doug Kass, "is the leading visionary in the computer industry today."

"When I took on the job [of chief technical officer] a lot of people didn't think it was a good idea," Mr. Sculley said in an interview at his modest Cupertino, Calif., office. "When I first wrote about the Knowledge Navigator five years ago, people thought it was either marketing hype or a kooky idea."

A scant six months ago, many Apple employees still felt that way, and would rather have hurled rocks at Mr. Sculley than praise.

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