Scott Forstall and the Loss of Trust

by Mark W. Hibben

10/30/12

It wasn’t Maps

Although it may seem self-evident to the tech media that Forstall is out as head of iOS at Apple (and due to leave the company next year) because of Maps and Siri,  the reality must be more complicated and more serious.  Maps continues to be decried in the media as a “disaster”, but in fact it is not, as my own testing has shown in a recent review I did of the iPhone 5.  It had flaws, more than typical of Apple software, and this was enough to ignite a feeding frenzy in the tech media, ever anxious to hold Apple to an impossible standard of perfection.  The reality is that maps works very well, and it’s improving rapidly.  My own finding, which accords with most complaints I’ve heard and read, was that the aerial view data base was lacking, but I’ve already seen considerable improvement in the past few weeks.  As for Siri, I never heard any complaints about it until Maps blew up.  Siri appears to have served simply as an excuse for the tech media to point the finger at Forstall, sensing that he was already wounded and vulnerable. 

Public embarrassments such as Maps are not usually sufficient to bring about the downfall of executives like Forstall, for a number of reasons.  The upper management of an organization such as Apple is a very exclusive club, and that club tends to be protective of its members, rushing to the defense of its own, especially when attacked by “outsiders”.  When a member of management does require some disciplinary action, the action usually stops short of out-right dismissal for a number of pragmatic reasons.  The most important of these reasons is the loss of expertise, which is especially true in Forstall’s case.  Forstall has led the iOS development effort from its inception.  Turning him loose in the world is not only a loss for Apple but a huge gain for any potential competitor.  This factor, combined with the immediate expense of contract termination, is usually enough to discourage the firing of key executives. 

The Unforgivable Sin

The reallocation of responsibility Apple has announced also points to an obvious disciplinary remedy for Forstall: his removal from heading Siri and Maps.  Responsibility for these has now been given to Eddy Cue, who will unify all Internet based services such as iTunes and iCloud under his command.  The fact that this was not sufficient points to a deeper problem.  The clue to this problem lies in an observation I and other writers have made about the Maps fiasco: it could have been avoided simply by acknowledging from the outset that Maps was still a work in progress.  Instead, Forstall oversold the capability of Maps (and Siri) through his flawless demos, which created expectations that couldn’t be met.

Based on subsequent events, I’ve concluded that it wasn’t merely the public’s expectations that were disappointed, but also the expectations of the upper management of Apple.  The art of being an effective CEO of a company such as Apple is very much the art of understanding what’s going on inside the company without getting bogged down in details.  Towards that end, CEOs are very dependent on the information presented to them by subordinates.  Forstall didn’t just oversell Maps to the public, he oversold it internally as well.  He would not have been allowed to give the demonstrations that he did otherwise. 

Whether Forstall understood the flaws of Maps may never be fully known.  I suspect he did, but merely rationalized them as minor.  This is not unusual for advocates of new products or technologies within large companies.  Obtaining funding and management backing for such endeavors is a sales job in its own right, and excesses of enthusiasm are usually indulged.   But at some point the moment of truth arrives when a decision has to be made to offer the new product or technology to the public.  At that point, the key decision makers need to know exactly what they’re getting into.  With Maps, I doubt that Tim Cook did.  This would have been Forstall’s unforgivable sin.

The Path Forward

Despite the loss of Forstall, which may yet be reversed in some way, the announced reorganization points to a positive maturation of Apple.  Under Jobs, the management organizational structure was very flat, reflecting Jobs penchant to run Apple like a small company.   Forstall’s responsibilities were not given to a replacement but redistributed to Cook’s existing direct reports.  For instance, iOS was given to Craig Federighi, who will now oversee all OS development within Apple.  His responsibilities, like Eddy Cues, are now so broad that they will necessarily have to delegate more responsibility in turn for major organizational areas such as iOS or Maps.  Apple’s management structure will therefore become more hierarchical, a much needed change for a company the size of Apple.  Although some feel I’ve been harshly critical of Cook, in general I’ve applauded the changes he has made to Apple from the Jobs era, and this reorganization is one of them.