The iOS chief is a lot like his mentor Steve Jobs: brilliant, presents well, a tenacious infighter—arguably just the taskmaster Apple needs to stay on top
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
|Apple Scott Forstall, senior vice president for iOS mobile software, at the Apple event in Cupertino, Calif., on Oct. 4, 2011.|
The deteriorating health of Steve Jobs loomed over Apple's (AAPL - News) Oct. 4 press event at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Apple wanted the day to be all about its new iPhone 4S, but the absence of the company's charismatic co-founder was palpable. On the far right of the jam-packed theater's front row was an empty chair, its back covered by a black cloth with "reserved" written in bright, white letters—possibly a subtle tribute to the ailing icon. Tim Cook, the company's new chief executive officer, took the stage first to kick off the 90-minute show, but he spoke slowly and deliberately, and perhaps, in hindsight, with a touch of melancholy. He didn't mention Jobs once. Neither did Phil Schiller, Apple's longtime marketing chief, who pulled the curtain off the new iPhone, or Eddy Cue, head of Internet software and services, who rolled out a new Web storage system, iCloud. The executives knew the situation was grim. Jobs passed away at 3 p.m. the following day, kicking off a wave of reflection and adulation that continues even now.
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The executive who summoned the most energy at the press conference was a boyish-looking senior vice-president named Scott Forstall, who reviewed the features of the new iPhone operating system. Toward the end of the event he returned to the stage to introduce the device's surreal digital assistant, Siri. "Who are you?" he asked his iPhone. "I am a humble personal assistant," the device replied, bringing the biggest laugh of the otherwise low-key morning. Forstall then showed off his Jobsian knack for ungrammatical hyperbole. "That is absolutely blow-away," he said.
With the death of Jobs at age 56, Forstall has now become an even more important and visible member of Apple's leadership team. As the person in charge of Apple's mobile software division, he oversees the iOS operating system, which runs the iPhone and iPad, devices that account for 70 percent of Apple's revenues. At 42 he's the youngest senior executive at Apple. He may also be the best remaining proxy for the voice of Steve Jobs, the person most likely to channel the departed co-founder's exacting vision for how technology should work. "He was as close to Steve as anybody at the company," says Andy Miller, who headed Apple's fledgling iAd group before leaving the company this summer. "When he says stuff, people listen."
Forstall, who went to work for Jobs right out of college, is one of the key architects of Apple's current success. In less than five years, iOS—the latest version, iOS 5, ships this week—has become one of the most valuable corporate assets on earth. His name is on about 50 Apple patents that cover everything from how application icons are laid out on the iPhone screen to the method of turning off a device with a finger swipe. On a crucial 2009 patent for a touchscreen device controlled by finger commands, "Forstall, Scott" is listed second, right after "Jobs, Steven P."
In many ways, Forstall is a mini-Steve. He's a hard-driving manager who obsesses over every detail. He has Jobs's knack for translating technical, feature-set jargon into plain English. He's known to have a taste for the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, in silver, the same car Jobs drove, and even has a signature on-stage costume: black shoes, jeans, and a black zippered sweater. (He favors Reyn Spooner Hawaiian shirts for normal days at the office.)
Forstall is like Steve in one other important way: He can be, in what some of his co-workers might call an understatement, a polarizing figure. He's won the intense loyalty and allegiance of many of his underlings, and his engineers are among the hardest workers at the company. At the same time, according to several former Apple employees, a number of high-ranking executives have left the company because they found working with Forstall so difficult. That sentiment, it seems, has not been limited to fellow executives. One former member of the iOS team, a senior engineer, describes leaving Apple after growing tired of working with Forstall and hearing his common refrain: "Steve wouldn't like that." Similarly frustrated engineers from Forstall's group have been hired by other Silicon Valley companies, according to one CEO. (Forstall and Apple declined several requests to comment; Steve Dowling, a company spokesman, says Apple does not cooperate on media profiles of its top executives.)
Some former associates of Forstall, none of whom would comment on the record for fear of alienating Apple, say he routinely takes credit for collaborative successes, deflects blame for mistakes, and is maddeningly political. They say he has such a fraught relationship with other members of the executive team—including lead designer Jony Ive and Mac hardware chief Bob Mansfield—that they avoid meetings with him unless Tim Cook is present.
Office politics are nothing unusual in Corporate America, nor are ambitious and divisive managers. Even if Forstall is controversial, he may just be what Apple needs now that Jobs is gone—a detail-oriented obsessive who gets things done, egos be damned. "I once referred to Scott as Apple's chief a-hole," says former Apple software engineer Mike Lee, who left the company in 2010. "And I didn't mean it as a criticism. I meant it as a compliment. You could say the same thing about Steve Jobs."
Yet part of what's made Apple such a spectacular success has been the ability of its management team to drive toward a common goal. Whatever the internal debates, the company has been a disciplined, almost monolithic agent of innovation whose executives fell in line with their leader.
Apple now confronts a whole set of new challenges if it is to continue its epic success into the post-Jobs era. Without its Decider-in-Chief, the company must fundamentally change the way it works. At weekly Monday meetings, Apple executives disagreed about matters all the time, but could count on Jobs to make the final call. Its board of directors must find a new chairman and take a more assertive role guiding the company. And Cook must ensure there isn't an exodus of those in the company's top ranks, all of whom are extravagantly wealthy and were loyal to Jobs.
The controversial and ambitious Forstall may present the greatest management puzzle. In families that lose a beloved parent, the children either band together with a shared sense of history and mission—or tear each other apart over the spoils of the estate. Apple's executives "have to learn new roles, but if somebody among them rises up and lords over the others, they can be resented for being presumptuous, [of trying to] assume Steve Jobs's legacy," says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the Yale University School of Management. "But if they treat it as a shared legacy, there is a way to keep that spirit alive."
Forstall's most recent triumphs are likely bittersweet. Over the last few years he watched as his biggest champion and mentor slowly lost an agonizing personal battle, all while products running his software have helped make Apple the most valuable company in the world. Apple has sold more than a quarter billion devices running Forstall's iOS. The iPhone alone, since its 2007 debut, has generated more than $70 billion in sales, inspiring a wave of copycat touchscreen phones from Samsung Electronics (005930.KS - News), HTC (2498.TW - News), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - News) , and Research In Motion (RIMM - News) , among others. The iPhone 4S, which goes on sale on Oct. 14, sports a speedy Apple-designed A5 processor and a beefed-up digital camera. And it operates on both major types of cell networks. On Oct. 10, Apple announced that more than one million orders for the new iPhone 4S were placed in a single day, a new iPhone record.
The most significant changes in the device are in Forstall's upgraded operating system, iOS 5. The new digital assistant, Siri, listens to voice requests for things like driving directions and calendar appointments. This virtual helper completes these tasks, and reports back in a robotic female voice. The iPhone 4S also makes it easier for users to post on Twitter. "They're shifting the focus from hardware to software and services," says Gene Munster, senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray (PJC - News), who predicts Apple will sell 183 million iOS devices in 2012.