Web Summit: Behind the myth of ‘the man who fired Steve Jobs’

Co-founder of Obi Worldphone not offended by ‘creative liberties’ taken in new film

The official first trailer for 'Steve Jobs' starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels has been released. Video: Universal Pictures

 

If we need any evidence that a reputation is often beyond anyone’s control, consider the case of John Sculley. Not many people, after all, have in recent years co-founded one of the world’s fastest growing smartphone companies, Obi Worldphone, and a data analytics firm, Zeta Interactive, valued at $1 billion.

When you are Sculley, however, you will often be described as the man who fired Steve Jobs. It’s an unenviable way to be described, and the new film about the Apple co-founder reinforces the perception that Sculley forced Jobs out while chief executive of the computer company back in the 1980s. The reality, of course, was rather more complex, with Jobs basically forcing the board’s hands.

“The way I look at the new film Steve Jobs is that this is not a biopic, this is not the history of Apple or the history of Steve Jobs,” says Sculley, who is gracious about the movie.

“The movie takes lots of creative licence with what happened. It has me in a suit. I was supposed to be the suit from the east coast, but I never wore suits. I’ve been in blue jeans for 40 years. A lot of creative liberties, but beautifully acted, beautifully written.”

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In the film, Sculley is portrayed by Jeff Daniels, and reviews have concentrated on many of the factual inaccuracies in the Aaron Sorkin-penned film.

“Jeff Daniels did a great job portraying me, but a lot of the facts are wrong. First of all, it didn’t clear up that I didn’t actually fire Steve Jobs, as the myth has taken on. It never happened. It also implied I cancelled the Macintosh, which obviously never happened . . . But Steve was a much better person than he is portrayed, he was much more fun to be around than he is portrayed. It doesn’t tell the full story of Steve Jobs.”

Sculley’s term as chief executive at Apple finished in 1993 as the company slid into a decline that Jobs managed to turn around years later. But, at 76, Sculley is back working with some of the creatives he had at Cupertino on one of his new projects, the Obi Worldphone.

“We’re really quite excited about Obi Worldphone,” he says. “I know people are terrified by this area, they say Apple takes all the profits, but we’re not competing against Apple, we’re not focused on the high end. We took the original team that worked with me at Apple, including Robert Brunner, head of product design there, and we focused on the design gap, where we think we can add value.”

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“I’m not CEO of any of these companies, I’m there as an adviser,” he emphasises. “I’m a rainmaker, I make the connections, I bring in the capital, but I’m never the decider.”

With a well-received book of the lessons he has learned from a lifetime in business, it’s clear that Sculley has grown into the position of wise mentor, the sort of role Jobs hoped he would play at Apple when he tempted him from Pepsi with the immortal phrase “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Despite how that gamble worked out, Sculley has no regrets. “I’ve had a fascinating opportunity in life to work with some of the most talented, interesting people on the planet, so I feel if I can hand off to the next generation some of the things I’ve learned along the way, that’s an honour.”