The departure this year of two of the three most prominent executives at Apple Computer raises the question about whether the next generation of senior managers will have the talent and experience to keep the company on its current track of vibrant growth.
Avadis “Avie” Tevanian, who shepherded the development of Mac OS X, and Jon Rubinstein, who oversaw much of the Macintosh hardware in recent years, have passed their responsibilities to others.
At some companies, such a loss of leadership could leave the company with a power vacuum or a lack of direction. However, Apple seems to be conscious that no single person—except, perhaps, CEO Steve Jobs himself—is irreplaceable, and that new talent can always be groomed for the future.
The issue of potential management succession issue took on greater urgency with the disclosure in August 2004 that Jobs had been diagnosed with a rare, but highly curable form of pancreatic cancer.
While by all appearances Jobs has responded well to treatment and his health is stable, the recent departures raise the question of who will lead the company in the future.
“Its my sense that Steve [Jobs] has quietly been dealing with the leadership issue at Apple,” said John Markoff, who has written extensively about Apple for The New York Times.
“I believe that he has brought in a layer of thirty-somethings that will be Apples next leadership generation. He inspires intense loyalty, and I think despite the fact that he insists the company speak with one voice that he is busy planning,” Markoff said.
Both Tevanian and Rubinstein owe more to Jobs than to Apple for their advancement.
Both were hired by Jobs for his company NeXT Computer, which he founded after leaving Apple in 1985.
When Apple bought NeXT in 1996, the three took top positions at Jobs old company, signaling to some that the deal had more been NeXT buying Apple than the other way around.
Tevanian was recruited for NeXT by Jobs based on Tevanians work at Carnegie Mellon on the Unix-like Mach operating system kernel.
At NeXT, Tevanian led development of the NeXTSTEP operating system, based on the Mach kernel.
One the major attractions of the new operating system was its object-oriented programming model, which was nearly unprecedented at the time, and its advanced PostScript-based display technology.
When Apple and NeXT became one in late 1996, Tevanian was placed at the head of the Mac OS software division, in charge of developing next generation Macintosh operating systems.
This became known as Mac OS X 10.0. There were transition pains for users, who had to run existing software in an emulation mode known as Classic and found problems with the new user interface and lackluster performance.
Developers likewise had to adjust to an entirely new programming environment; Mac OS X-native applications took years, at times, to come to market.
Both combined to slow adoption of the new OS and the purchase of new Macs, especially in environments where backward compatibility was mission-critical, such as pre-press production houses.
However, the transition went smoothly enough for Jobs to declare, within only a few years, that the old Mac OS was dead, and that Apple now lived for the operating system Tevanian helped create and oversee.
“When Avie first arrived at Apple from NeXT,” said Wil Shipley, the CEO of software company Delicious Monster, “he took over software and, seriously, kicked butt.”
“I used to tell everyone who thought Apple was doomed back then, No, its going to rock, because Avie Knows How To Ship. This was my mantra. The boy knew how to test it, clip it and ship it,” said Shipley.
Both Feet Forward
Shipley added that “Avie corralled Apples engineers and got them to stop dissing OS X like it was another Copeland or Pink or Taligent or whatever—he got them in line or cut em loose.”
In July 2003, Tevanian shifted his position to become Apples chief technology officer, allowing longtime second-in-command Bertrand Serlet to assume his old title of senior vice president of software engineering.
“This will be a seamless handoff,” said Jobs at the time.
John Gruber wrote about the succession for his Web site, Daring Fireball: “I asked a few engineer friends at Apple whether my perception was correct—that Tevanian has had one foot out the door ever since he stepped down from day-to-day management of Apple software engineering in 2003, and that the news that hes leaving the company completely isnt really a big deal at all.
“They all agreed, more or less, that Tevanian has had both feet out the door, but just hadnt yet turned in his keys. No one I spoke to at Apple has any idea what hes been up to the last three years.”
In an e-mail to eWEEK.com, Gruber wrote that “Tevanian was and will always remain personally associated with Mach.”
His departure, Gruber added, doesnt have “anything at all to do with Apples future plans regarding Mach. I honestly dont think they have any plans to outright replace Mach, but even if they do, I dont think thats related to Tevanians departure from the company.”
Serlet, who had also been at NeXT with Tevanian and Jobs, had been Apples vice president of platform technology. In that position, he managed most of the Mac OS software engineering group.
Since his move to heading the software engineering group, Serlet has overseen the development and production of Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger”, which has received positive reviews.
Serlets appointment “made me very happy,” said Shipley, “because Bertrand is another hands-on engineer and old NeXTie, and hes a helluva great coder as well as being great at listening to the developer community.
“Bertrands also a very friendly person and very unaffected guy,” said Shipley.
“I would bet you cant find anyone at Apple who would speak ill of him; I certainly wouldnt trust anyone who didnt like him.”
In terms of how his departure will affect “the parts of Apple that I know about, its pretty minimal—Bertrands been running the software show for several years now, and Ive been really pleased with the technologies weve seen in that time: Spotlight, CoreData, bindings, journalled filesystems… all great stuff,” said Shipley.
In early 2006, Tevanian announced that he would retire from Apple on March 31, after seven years at the company.
Rubinstein was one of the many NeXT employees, along with Tevanian, who followed Jobs in his return to Apple.
Rubinstein had been the head of hardware at Next, where he spearheaded development of then-groundbreaking hardware as the magnesium-cased, Motorola-based NeXTcube and the NeXTstation, which Delicious Monsters Shipley called “one of the most perfect computers ever built.”
The NeXT computers stood out not just for their high-style industrial design, but for inclusion of features such as Ethernet ports, extra RAM, a high-resolution (for the time) display and the NeXTSTEP operating system.
Some have said that the NeXTcube was the prime influence in Apples Power Macintosh G4 Cube computer, which debuted in July 2000.
Though NeXT sold few of these sold in comparison to commodity PCs, NeXTcubes played a significant role in computing history.
Tim Berners-Lee used one to create the first Web browser in 1991, and John Carmack coded Wolfenstein 3D and Doom on NeXT hardware.
At Apple, Rubinstein helped Jobs simplify and clarify the Macintosh product lineup, which had grown increasingly complex and diffuse under CEO Gil Amelio.
During his tenure, Rubinstein also oversaw the hardware design of the iMac, modern PowerBooks, the Xserve, the Mac mini and more powerful Power Macs.
In May of 2004, Apple went through an internal reorganization.
This move created two new components of the company; the existing hardware division, which had been under Rubinsteins eye, split into iPod and Macintosh divisions.
At the time, Jobs said that the iPod division was created to retain the companys focus, and that the reorganization was in the mold of Apples creation of its successful retail and Applications divisions.
Rubinstein was assigned to the iPod division, leaving the Macintosh division, which oversaw hardware engineering, sales, support and operations, to Tim Cook, who was previously Apples head of sales and operations.
Prior to joining Apple, Cook worked for Compaq as vice president of corporate materials, which entailed managing the procurement and handling of the companys product inventory.
Cook was named Apples chief operating officer in October 2005, though he did not relinquish his role at the Macintosh division.
Some have speculated that Cook is being groomed as an eventual CEO candidate; he has filled in for Jobs in the past.
Also in October 2005, Apple announced Rubinsteins forthcoming retirement from senior vice president of the companys iPod division.
Taking his position was Tony Fadell, who joined Apple in 2001 as “the first member of [Apples] iPod hardware engineering team,” according to Fadells official company biography.
Rubinsteins resignation went into effect officially April 14.
Rubinstein currently has a one-year consulting agreement with Apple. According to the contracts terms, Rubinstein will make himself available for a limited amount of time per week in exchange for a flat (and undisclosed) fee.
Before Fadell came to Apple, he was the co-founder, chief technology officer and director of engineering of the Mobile Computing Group at Phillips Electronics.
He also started his own company, Fuse, which developed a small music player that contained a hard disk.
In 2000, he showed this device to Apple, which hired him in early 2001 as a contractor to work on the companys iPod project.
Within a few months, Fadell was brought in full-time to oversee the iPod and iSight products. And three years later, in 2004, Fadell was named as vice president of the iPod Engineering Group, under Rubinstein.
This wasnt Fadells first tenure at Apple, exactly. In 1992 he had joined General Magic, a company co-founded by Apple luminaries such as Andy Herzfeld and spun off from Apple in 1990 to explore PDA-like devices.
Though Tevanians and Rubinsteins departures are watersheds in Apples history, these moves most likely do not represent a break with history.
“In both cases—Tevanian and Rubinstein,” said Gruber, “I think youve got guys who worked their butts off for years, managed a series of very successful large projects for NeXT and then Apple, earned small fortunes in Apple stock, and have now decided to enjoy their success.”