The Scott Forstall Mystery

Mystery continues to surround Scott Forstall's removal from Apple in October 2012. Forstall has not given any public comments on the circumstances leading up to his dismissal as SVP of iOS Software, an unusual twist in an industry where executive turnover is common, and talent is scarce. As Apple struggles a bit with recent software launches and mishaps, many are asking if Apple would have been better off with Scott Forstall still leading iOS software. I suspect Apple is giving Forstall quite a bit of financial incentive to remain quiet on what transpired leading to his termination in an effort to not overshadow the Apple Watch launch, a project Forstall likely worked on in the early development stages.  

Even though the media may have looked at Scott Forstall's removal as a near-term story in 2012, I have continued to be interested in the long-term implications, not only resulting from the event, but what can be learned from those currently leading Apple, including CEO Tim Cook, SVP of Design Jony Ive, and SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller, and how they determined Forstall had to be relieved of his duties. To properly understand how a company operates, one needs to look at how the company is managed.

The official explanation from Apple for Scott Forstall's removal was to increase collaboration, which implies Forstall was impeding such collaboration. Beyond that, we have been told very little information about the events leading up the management shakeup, besides "sources" telling various journalists there were personality tensions. Fortune reporter Adam Lashinsky positioned the Apple Maps debacle, and Forstall's refusal to apologize for it's problematic launch, as the final nail in the coffin.  Not having the other side of the story makes this situation that more interesting. 

There were a few noteworthy developments that I think deserve to be mentioned when getting the full perspective on Scott Forstall. In May 2012, quite a few eyebrows were raised when Forstall sold 95% of his AAPL stock holdings. Insider stock trades have notoriously been scrutinized to get clues as to how management views the future. While it would seem obvious that selling stock is a negative, other factors such as asset diversification, restricted stock units, and tax issues come into play. One year earlier, Forstall (along with the entire executive team) was granted restricted stock units worth at the time $60 million, with a vesting schedule through 2016. Selling shares in May of 2012 with the full understanding that his direct ownership would once again increase as options vested would likely limit the amount of negative connotations from Forstall's selling. However, weeks later, the world was shown iOS 6 and reaction was muted compared to previous iOS unveilings. Apple Maps was labeled as a focal point, while Forstall's design ideas were everywhere. Three months later, Apple Maps turned into Apple's biggest nightmare since Antennagate and Forstall's stock sale seemed a bit more appropriate. Did Forstall sense trouble on the horizon? 

I suspect that Forstall was finding himself falling out of favor with the direction Jony and the rest of the executive team were heading. Apple was moving beyond phones and tablets into wearables, and software's role was changing.

Tim Cook and Jony have gone on record to say that the Apple Watch was under development for three years, which would date the project back to 2011. I would go further and say that Apple knew it was moving fast into wearables from the success of the iPod nano watch faces. Scott Forstall would have then been involved in the initial development stages of a wearable. While it's unclear when features like the Digital Crown (which plays a major role in the watch's user interface) were developed, I think disagreement around the project played some role in Forstall's ousting, thereby suggesting it was in Apple's best interest to keep Forstall from going public with details of the project not specifically included in his non-disclosure agreement. I think Apple and Forstall negotiated a severance package that contains most, if not all, of his restricted stock units granted to him in 2011 on the condition that he remain out of the public eye. Beyond the Apple Watch, I actually don't think Forstall's knowledge on Apple's future plans is too valuable, especially considering he is already two years removed from Apple. The most valuable piece of information isn't what Apple is working on, but what they aren't working on, and even then I have doubts Forstall would be privy to everything occurring in Jony's labs. 

Some observers say Apple must miss not having Scott Forstall. I look at the statement as unfalsifiable since it is impossible to know all of the corresponding events that would have taken place if Scott Forstall were still as Apple. I would point out that considering some of Apple's biggest product mishaps occurred under Forstall's leadership, I tend to think Forstall's value-add to Apple has been overestimated. In addition, Craig Federighi has been doing a relatively good job leading software engineering as seen with the upbeat developer reaction following WWDC 2014. 

Apple's success is due to its management team being more valuable as a collective group than each individual separately. Scott Forstall's sheer talent and vision led him to hold one of the more powerful positions within Apple, largely at the blessing of Steve Jobs, however I suspect Apple's changing priorities with wearables contributed to his dismissal. If there is one lesson to learn from the Forstall mystery these past two years, it is that executive collaboration has contributed to the Apple of yesterday (new touch interface and app revolution) being very different from the Apple of today (new ecosystem services and personalized wearable hardware).

 

I publish a daily email about Apple called AAPL Orchard. Click here to subscribe.