History according to a sugar water salesman


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John SculleyAround this time last year, the Cult of Mac interviewed John Sculley, the businessman who Steve Jobs recruited away from selling "sugar water" (Pepsi) to run Apple. The company's board of directors would eventually side with Sculley and oust Jobs, initiating the next chapter in the soap opera that is Apple's turbulent past.

It must be something about autumn that brings Sculley to the minds of reporters, as Janet Guyon at the Wall Street Journal recently grilled the former CEO. You'd think that his and Apple's story, being the stuff of legend, would be well-known by now, but even in these latest reports, interesting tidbits surface.

The first was that Sculley had a history with Apple predating his professional involvement: he made his former employer one of Apple's biggest clients.

I had seen one of the first spreadsheets developed for an Apple II computer after being invited to Harvard Business School to talk to a class about the Pepsi Challenge. When that product was commercialized in the early 1980s, I bought every Pepsi bottler an Apple computer and told them they could have it for free as long as they sent us their sales reports on a floppy disk every week. This greatly condensed the time it took us to get sales reports.

Despite that intersection, Sculley's experience at Pepsi didn't make him a technical wizard. But it did help him develop the skills which Apple assessed themselves as lacking. Jobs' own Reality Distortion Field could bring in supporters for any new product — but what about for an old one?

I found the challenges of Apple particularly intriguing. What they needed was someone who could keep the Apple II computer, which was a cash machine, commercially alive for three more years because Steve Jobs was still a year away from introducing the Macintosh. In 1983, Apple was outsold by each Atari and Commodore by 2-to-1 … Keeping the Apple II alive didn't require someone to know much about computer technology, it required someone who knew something about how to market and sell a near end-of-life product.

Just like how Woz and Jobs complemented each other with technical and entrepreneurial know-how, so too did Sculley and Jobs learn from each other:

[Steve Jobs and I] were learning from each other. He was learning from me about "experience marketing," how to sell consumer products, how you run a much bigger company and how you recruit people from outside your industry.

Still, they had their differences, including one that could've significantly impacted the development of the Apple II. Some Apple II Bits readers have pinned the blame for the Apple II's demise on Jobs. Whether or not that's true, by process of elimination, the odds begin to favor that interpretation. Says Sculley:

We were still very dependent on the profits of Apple II. I felt we had to push profits of Apple II and Steve wanted to lower the price of the Mac to get sales up.

Whatever their past partnerships or antagonisms, the triangle between Sculley, Jobs, and Apple was unlike any that Sculley had ever encountered — in a way that does not bode well for the future of the company:

Apple is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs is Apple. That was entirely different from anything I had experienced coming out of Pepsi.

Pepsi never had so public a leader or so identified a creator as Steve Jobs. Given the recent resignation of Sculley's former partner, what does this mean for the company the two have left behind?