Apple’s latest and greatest creation will be something ranging from a wristwatch to touch-ready lingerie, if you read the tea leaves laid out by Bill Campbell, a member of the company’s board. Apple (AAPL)—and Silicon Valley as a whole—has embarked on a path of technological intimacy in which the everyday objects we hold dear appear set for major upgrades, he said.
Campbell held court on Friday at the Mountain View headquarters of Intuit (INTU), where he serves as chairman. Also a board member at Apple and close friend of the late Steve Jobs, Campbell has built a reputation as a chief executive whisperer and corporate adviser. As a result, hundreds of employees turned up to listen to him chat with Intuit CEO Brad Smith. This internal event marked a rare such appearance for Campbell, who prefers to operate behind the scenes.
During the hourlong conversation, Campbell touched on the things that make a product great, how managers should behave, and some of the recent highs and lows he’s seen in the technology industry and beyond. Notoriously salty tongued, Campbell made it through the first half hour without cursing and then largely yielded to his nature by the end. “This is as G-rated as I get,” he said.
The conversation started with a look ahead toward future products. Noting that he was not at liberty to give away specific details on future Apple gizmos, Campbell did tell the audience to expect to see “a lot of things going on with the application of technology to really intimate things.” He pointed to Google Glass as one such intimate object. “It’s a phenomenal breakthrough,” he said. “When you start to think about glasses or watches, they become as intimate as the cell phone was.”
A short while later, Campbell celebrated Nest, the company started by former Apple executive Tony Fadell that makes a fancy thermostat. “You would think that people would yawn at something as boring as a thermostat,” Campbell said. “So, I’ve been surprised at how it has done and is doing. It will be the first of many products that come out of that company, which has a brilliant CEO and engineering team.”
Campbell had more abrasive words for another former Apple executive—Ron Johnson, the J.C. Penney (JCP) CEO who was fired after trying a handful of radical moves to build a new image for the retailer. “A lot of people in the industry were really concerned about him being successful,” Campbell said. “They didn’t want him to be successful. It would have changed a lot of metaphors in the industry.”
The timing of Johnson’s firing surprised Campbell because he thought the board might let some of his plans, such as creating small stores within J.C. Penney locations, play out in 2013. Still, Campbell felt J.C. Penney’s recent 25 percent drop in sales was just too much. “You have to keep your current business going while you experiment with a new one,” he said. “He didn’t do that. He just put a bullet hole in his current business. Twenty-five percent? I mean, Jiminy. It’s a disastrous thing.”
Campbell also said he was surprised that Rockmelt, a Web browser startup, has struggled. The company just announced that it will stop supporting its browser, which had been tuned for social networks. “It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen,” Campbell said. “It looks like it would be enormously practical.”
On the whole, Campbell advised that product managers should not just be barking down commands about what features a new product should and shouldn’t have. They should work in close concert with the engineers and act more or less as editors, guiding features along the way. He pointed to Jobs and Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Square, as two of the top such editors of their day.