Apple's biggest problem: People might quit?

There is speculation that some of Apple's best talent might quit because the company can't create the sorts of products it wants in Cupertino. But whose fault would that be?

All the problems are his. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

There is something slightly entertaining about the alleged crisis at the world's most famous and successful company.

Just because a bunch of greasy-haired speculators have decided that Apple's shares are worth less than Google's (this week), garments are rended and teeth gnashed.

And then there's teens. Apparently, they're all fleeing the brand and rushing toward Microsoft's Surface. Which, apparently, isn't selling well.

In times of such rampant face-contorting and mind-numbing, I always remember the words of Mitt Romney: "Companies are people, too."

And so it is that in a rather more measured discussion about the future of Apple, Daring Fireball's John Gruber and his guest -- iPhone and Mac developer Guy English -- talked for quite a long time about Apple's real problem: people.

Gruber's fear is that the best engineers may decide that they cannot be satisfied at Apple.

"The problem isn't that Apple is bleeding talent, the problem is that they could," he said.

Some might suggest that there also could be an earthquake centered on Cupertino or that North Korea has better nuclear missiles than we think.

But the point is important because of the cult of personality (sometimes fostered by, well, Apple) that has always surrounded the company.

There's been a constant belief that Apple was really a lot of Steve Jobs, a fair dollop of Jony Ive and a touch of occasional fascination from Scott Forstall.

The greater truth has always been that there were many extremely wise and talented engineers having large ideas, but -- in public, at least -- small names.

One example was Tony Fadell, who left Apple to create Nest, a revolutionary thermostat.

English speculated that once you've created, say, the first iPhone, that might feel like your life's work. Whatever comes afterward -- at least within the markets that Apple operates -- may feel like so much of so what.

There will be those who imagine that all the speculation surrounding Apple's supposed, alleged, putative iWatch might suggest this is being created as some clever person's vanity project.

Perhaps this might have come out of some amusement on the part of a few Apple engineers, who wanted to see it emerge into real life.

Apple, though, is quite serious about entertainment. As serious as it is about design. It's hard to believe it would suddenly commit itself to frippery for frippery's sake. Yes, even wearable, profitable frippery.

In the end, every company's problem resides in retaining those people who really do the work.

Some employees don't want to be famous. They simply want their work to be famous. They simply want to feel as if they going to create products that everyone will talk about -- and, hopefully, covet.

It's not exactly every engineer who wants to hog the limelight. Somehow, limelight-hogging just isn't many engineers' thing.

Apple's biggest problem -- as with many companies -- will always lie in creating an atmosphere where everyone who works there believes that there is no better place for them to be a better creator.

It's inevitable for many to fear that Apple's ability to create new markets through surprising products is waning.

It's hard to avoid the perception that Tim Cook is less of a visionary and more of a supremely efficient manager.

Sometimes, though, supremely efficient managers are supremely wise in creating opportunities for their best people to consistently achieve.

That's Apple biggest test -- and potentially biggest problem.

It isn't merely about creating great products. It's about its people believing that creating great products is still possible.

Which leaves one little question: is there really one more gadget that humanity needs in order to make its existence easier and more pleasurable?

What gadget would that be?

 

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