ON THE FIRING LINE
My 500 Days at Apple
By Gil Amelio and William L. Simon
HarperBusiness 298pp $25
For years, "How would you fix Apple Computer?" had been a favorite parlor game in some Silicon Valley circles. Now, with the computer maker's fortunes stabilizing, a new game is emerging: "Were you skewered in Gil Amelio's new book?" After all, in On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple, the ousted Apple boss gathers all the ammo he can find and fires back--taking aim at everyone from reporters, including this one, to such powerful figures as Microsoft Corp. Chairman William H. Gates III and current Apple CEO Steven P. Jobs. Snarls Joseph A. Graziano, Apple's former chief financial officer and one of Amelio's many victims: "If he'd dealt with Apple's problems with the same speed as he publishes books promoting himself, he might have had more success."
Indeed, you would think Amelio would be off licking his wounds rather than baring his soul. Replaced by Jobs last July--just seven months after buying Jobs's NeXT Software Inc.--Amelio presided over a period marked by financial disasters, plunging market share, and, worst of all, a lack of the tough-minded decision-making that Jobs has since delivered.
But if On the Firing Line won't win Amelio friends or restore his reputation, it will keep readers tantalized. Unlike Profit From Experience, the pedantic 1995 management tome also co-authored by Amelio and business writer William L. Simon, this book is a fast-paced, heartfelt look at life as a Silicon Valley chieftain. And, oh, those war stories, which show powerful high-tech figures at their most vulnerable. There's a shell-shocked Graziano sobbing to Amelio after being ousted by Apple's board in late 1995. At a key Mac industry event, we see Jobs throw a "Steve-trum" and refuse to stand next to ex-partner Stephen Wozniak for a photo.
Amelio also fills in bits of history that cast Apple's recent spate of good news in a different light. For example, while Jobs earned kudos for forging a partnership with Microsoft last July, Amelio reveals that he had started the talks himself long before. "I wouldn't make the commitments that Bill [Gates] wanted because he was unwilling to give anything in return," he writes. "I was prepared to wait him out. In the end, Gates would win by waiting me out."
Indeed, Amelio presents a compelling, if highly biased, view of one of America's most controversial corporations. He lays bare the lack of management discipline that has plagued Apple for years. For example, when top managers ignore his plea for help with a key strategy-setting project, he's reduced to locking them out of the conference room where he and a few aides work on the plans.
There are lots of highs early in his tenure, such as getting a standing ovation at one of Apple's rock-concert-like company meetings. But most of the book focuses on his excruciating fall from grace. When a teleprompter breaks during a major speech before thousands of Mac fanatics, he suffers a nightmarish humiliation that is prolonged in a crush of articles ridiculing not only his performance but also the too-hip collarless shirt he wore. And he gives the blow-by-blow of his final days at the helm, right up to his firing--via a Fourth of July weekend phone call from board member Edgar S. Woolard Jr.
Amelio does take much of the blame for his troubled tenure upon himself. He admits he waited too long to decide the fate of Apple's Newton handheld computer--which Jobs summarily dropped earlier this year. Most damning, he grants he should have taken more drastic action sooner to downsize or break up the company into software and hardware units--suggestions Graziano says he had pleaded for as far back as 1995.
But most of Amelio's admissions just pave the way for criticisms of others. He berates himself for his inability to get staffers to come clean about the real status of Mac orders, but lambastes sales chief James J. Buckley as "brain-dead." While he scolds himself for predicting when Apple would return to profitability--a tactic that backfired when he was unable to maintain profits past a one-quarter gain in late 1996--he says it was all Woolard's idea. In the end, it's mostly Amelio's leadership that the reader is left questioning.
As for his dalliance with Jobs, Amelio admits he was played like a top by the manipulative company co-founder. The book's prologue recounts a visit from Jobs in late 1995, during which he asks Amelio, who had just joined the company's board, to help him retake the CEO position. Yet even with this advance warning, and after Jobs allegedly lied to him and repeatedly failed to offer public support, Amelio didn't recognize danger until the end. "Betrayal, assassination, [and] trashing of reputations are all part of the everyday tool kit of a person obsessed with power, control, or revenge," he writes. "I was in Steve's way and had to be eliminated."
If Amelio ultimately came around to this view of Jobs, big blind spots remained. He still complains of unfair media treatment. For example, Amelio accuses this reviewer of trying, with a piece written before last year's annual meeting, to foment shareholder revolt by pointing out that the five-year, $12 million-plus pay package he had landed the year before was still subject to shareholder approval. But just because Apple's slow-moving board was forced in a pinch to throw a world-class deal to Amelio, one of its own members, doesn't mean shareholders shouldn't exercise their right to agree or disagree.
Although Amelio may one day get credit as the set-up man--should Jobs return Apple to prosperity--his legacy hardly stacks up with his paycheck. On the other hand, one Amelio invoice seems justified: This compelling, if flawed, memoir is well worth its $25 price tag.