Is AOL Like Apple Without Steve Jobs?

Rob Enderle

It's hard to imagine what Apple's model would look like without a charismatic leader behind it. Apple is focused like a laser on products that provide high revenue potential, on looking at every nook and cranny for each extra revenue cent, and for working its people nearly to death to make the entire model work on projects that are less creative, but much more profitable.

 

AOL is making the news today and, thanks to the very visible departure of an Engadget editor, appears to be taking a page from Apple's book. However, the difference is that Tim Armstrong, the guy trying to turn AOL into a power player, is no Steve Jobs.

 

Let's explore this today.

 

Apple Under Jobs

 

What we saw in the first few years of Apple under Steve Jobs was an almost maniacal focus on profit. Everything had to flow to the bottom line and even though Apple was arguably the first with a PDA-a market Palm later excelled at-and one of the first with a compelling digital camera, these products were eliminated in order to focus on the core business. PCs were barely paying the bills and the iPod was acquired with a DRM model that increasingly tied the purchased content back to the device. Once the DRM was removed, Apple expanded to iPhones and iPods that could take applications, which again could be tied to the device and generate additional revenue.


 

To keep these products ahead of the curve, Steve Jobs drove the teams to near-superhuman levels of advancement, and today the iPad is not only the best tablet in the market, but no one can touch its value.

 

Behind this crazy pace is Steve Jobs with a whip for those who aren't meeting his expectations and a reward of recognition for those who do. He is a god to most of the Apple employees who both fear and respect him, and if they don't, they don't last very long. He says "jump," and they say "how high" or are "Steved," or booted, out of the firm.

 

The AOL Way

 

The manifesto,"AOL Way," reads like something Steve Jobs would have written if he had put his directives into writing (Carmine Gallo did this for him in his book "Innovate the Steve Jobs Way"). It showcases a sharp focus on profit and on the elimination of things that aren't profitable. This also includes the implicit idea that reporters or editors who don't make the grade should find employment elsewhere. The goal is to make AOL a profitable powerhouse.

 

However, Tim Armstrong is no Steve Jobs and he isn't a demi-god at AOL. He didn't found the company and apparently doesn't engender a great deal of loyalty through what appears to be visible infighting. This showcases the difference between a management leadership style where documents form the core of the practices and one based on the power of a personality where the leader steps into the key role.

 

Wrapping up: Could Huffington Be the Key?

 

Armstrong either needs to step into this leadership role, or if he can't, find someone who can. Arianna Huffington appears to garner the kind of loyalty Steve Jobs is famous for, and while she failed in her attempt to become California Governor, she did rather well against a globally known and highly regarded actor. She is known to be harsh but driven, and her property, The Huffington Post, is arguably the best in its class on the Web and a high percentage of her writers are not paid. If she can stand being in the number 2 spot after being acquired by AOL, it could be the right mix for a very successful offering.

 

AOL, without Huffington, is like Apple without Jobs, which isn't a good thing. But we'll know soon enough if Huffington can fix AOL. In the meantime, it remains a cautionary story for Apple, which clearly doesn't want to return to the managed leadership style of the pre-Jobs 1990s.



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