John Sculley, who turned around Pepsi and Apple, has a new cause

| Entrepreneurship

The 80-year-old executive is now trying to solve the problems of America’s health-care system — and inspiring students to help change the world

As a marketing manager, John Sculley developed the so-called Pepsi Challenge, which enabled the company to gain market share from Coca-Cola. In the 1980s, Sculley ran Apple — and had a famous run-in with Steve Jobs.

Today, Sculley, 80, is urging young people to take the “noble cause” challenge. That was his rallying cry to my students in a lecture at Carnegie Mellon’s school of engineering at Silicon Valley on Monday.

Having sold obesity and sugared water in his earlier days, Sculley is now trying to solve the problems of America’s health-care system — and inspiring the next generation of engineers to make the world a better place. He is making amends.

From Pepsi to Apple

Sculley told my students the story of how Jobs had recruited him as Apple’s  chief executive officer in 1983, asking him the now-famous question: “Do you want to sell sugar water all your life, or do you want to change the world?” The Macintosh had not yet been introduced. Computers were sold largely on their technology features. What made Apple different, said Sculley, was its goal to create, in Jobs’ words, an “insanely great consumer experience.”

“On the one hand,” Sculley told the class, “Apple might have missed something big by not being a technology-licensing company, but that’s not the business we were in. We were in the business of marketing the experience.” That led the Macintosh to become the top-selling personal computer in the world.

As Sculley explains it, the problem was Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” Jobs was clearly a genius, but one who never “let the laws of physics get in the way of his ambitions to put a dent in the universe.” He had the brilliance to see the world 20 years ahead of the rest of us, but wasn’t yet a sensible business executive. And, in early 1985, he was depressed. Jobs ran the Macintosh division. But his crown jewel, Macintosh Office, introduced in January that year, had rapidly become a laughing stock.

Jobs had bet everything on this first personal publishing system for non-technical consumers. It fulfilled his vision of an inspiring user experience by connecting a Mac with a laser printer to print a rastered image including fonts. But computers then didn’t have the processing speed for what was called desktop publishing. Today, even the cheapest computing devices can perform such tasks, because they have greater computational speed than the Cray supercomputers of that era; but Macintosh Office was beyond them then. It took the Mac a minute and a half to rasterise an image on its display and print its beautiful postscript fonts.

The Macintosh division was hemorrhaging cash. The Apple II division, which Sculley ran, was doing well and was the only source of the cash flow vital for keeping Apple financially alive.

Sculley says that Jobs, blaming him for the sales failure of Macintosh Office, demanded both a $500 reduction in the price of the Macintosh and a transfer of limited marketing funds from the Apple II to Macintosh Office. Sculley refused. They asked the board to decide, and, after hearing their arguments and consulting Apple’s most respected engineers, the board removed Jobs as head of the Macintosh group. (The board had previously removed him from the Lisa computer group for the same reason, before Sculley joined Apple, because they found Jobs too difficult to work with.)

Jobs wasn’t fired, though; in fact, he remained as chairman and was invited to head up any other projects he would like to. Less than four months later, Jobs resigned from Apple and founded NeXT computer — which Apple purchased 11 years later when it hired Jobs back as CEO.

What Jobs wanted became possible many years later because technology advances on an exponential curve, an industry standard of progress known as Moore’s Law. For more than 100 years, the processing power of computers had doubled every year or two, enabling faster computers to design faster computers.

World-changing inventions

And computers — and the information technology that they enable — are absorbing other fields. We are seeing exponential advances in fields such as sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine and synthetic biology, and these advances are making it possible to solve the problems of hunger, disease, poverty, clean energy and education — as well as rapid printing.

The best part is that it isn’t just governments and big research labs that can do this. With the declining costs of technologies, students can create world-changing inventions for less than the cost of a master’s degree. And it isn’t just the young students who can do it.

Sculley noted that, as we grow older, we don’t get smarter — but can get wiser. He himself is applying lessons he learned from those early days with Jobs to pursue his own “noble cause”: of mentoring a new generation of brilliant entrepreneurs to revolutionize health care. A startup he cofounded with Ravi Ika, RxAdvance, has built a platform-based prescription-drug system to simplify the many thousands of rules and regulations that greatly inflate the cost of medications. Their ambition is to reduce the uncontrolled cost of prescription drugs for the chronically ill by some $840 billion annually by making the prescription system fully transparent.

Sculley’s concluding message was this: If, at age 80, he can have such grand ambitions, imagine what the most brilliant of engineering students at one of the top engineering colleges in the world can do.

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