Apple's botched MobileMe launch and the failure of fear-based management

MobileMe launched in 2008 as a replacement for .Mac and ended up being replaced itself just three short years later by iCloud. So terrible was its launch, so tarnished was was the perception of its service, that Steve Jobs reportedly walked the halls of Apple with a flame-thrower, dressing down the troops and handing over responsibility for the service to his fixer, Eddy Cue. But was MobileMe's failings the fault of the engineers, or of the managers in charge of the project? Former member of the MobileMe team, Erin Caton believes the latter:

Now, regardless of whether no one in the inner sanctum of dudes-that-Steve-listened-to-at-the-time told him all the things we told our bosses, or who-up-the-chain-of-command was not brave enough to suggest we do something not-Apple-like — this was the system that Steve created. He made himself so fearful and terrible that an entire group of amazing, talented, hard working people, ended up getting screamed at wrongfully. It was his fault that the MobileMe launch went so poorly, not ours.

Steve Jobs is no longer with us, but the culture he created at Apple remains very much alive. Troubled launches with Siri and with iOS 6 Maps show that not all lessons may have been launched from MobileMe, and if Caton is right, might also show at least part of the reason why.

Read the rest of her post for her full take on the events surrounding the MobileMe launch.

Source: Erin Caton

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Sounds like Apple would be wise to bring in a top-notch organizational consultant (or consultant team) to do an organization-wide assessment. Not that there's a lot of problems, but to make them even stronger etc.
  • Thanks mobile me for the wonderful years!
  • Blame it on the dead guy. Classy.
  • Credit where credit is due, blame where blame is due . . dead or alive.
  • Hopefully Apple will finally start innovating again someday. Atleast revamp that boring old iOS UI so that I and many many others that they've lost to Android can finally come back. I love iOS products but it's iOS that turns me away from them. Hopefully Apple gets their shit together and makes it happen with iOS 7.
  • They run the risk of what happened with Windows 8, the benefits of familiarity and consequent ease of use wiped out in the pursuit of the new.
  • Ask Ballmer about Bozo-based management.
    He's the world's leading expert.
  • Sometimes a company gets so big at the top, employees are afraid to say something negative about a new product. Case in point, when Coke came out with the first version of the new coke, they let employees test it, and wanted honest answers. They basically got the "yes taste great" answer, because people were afraid if they were negative about a new product, they would loose there job. Was Apple like this when putting out something new? I believe there are other factors also, but you have to have a working environment where there can be disagreement over a product to make it better, or back to the drawing board.
  • I went and checked out her full posting, the first thing she complained about was Steve cutting in front of her in the sushi line. "Steve is a bit of a dick" she says, not even recognizing the CEO of the company she's working for. Had she looked into it at all she would have already known that. Second, and I hear project managers wax poetic over crap all the time like this "we re-branded and created an awesome product out of .Mac." She then proceeds to blame it on Steve because they weren't given more time. What she fails to understand is no, it wasn't a great product it was a total flipping disaster for anyone who tried to use it when it rolled out, she doesn't take any ownership of that. So if I have to choose between who really loused this up: a CEO responsible for nor less than 6 industry changing products or an excuse making project manager who doesn't take ownership for not meeting her scope I think I'm going with the dick CEO.
  • Absent from who was responsible for MobileMe's failure; a CEO who cuts into line is a dick. It is emblematic of a poor leader, no matter how brilliant they are. Leading by fear only lasts so long, and you wind up losing good people. You can replace them as long as you are on top, but if things start to go south the floodgates will open as no one wants to be the last person standing. As a result, the CEO tends to become an even bigger jerk and the cycle continues.
  • I affirmed he was a dick, there's really no doubt about that. The question remains, is that a style that can work? Some say no but how can you possibly explain the incredible success he enjoyed if it can't be sustained? He didn't suddenly start being a dick, he always was one.
  • The point you are missing is that the article did not say that being a dick *always* fails. It simply said that, when something starts to go wrong, fear of reporting the problem can short circuit necessary feedback loops, turning what might otherwise be a small issue into a disaster. In this example, a small problem (a delayed/staggerred MobileMe launch) became a fiasco for Apple (a widely panned bing bang launch), because recommendations from front-line engineers never make it to a high enough level where corrective strategic decisions could be made. That is not to say ruling by fear fails all the time -- clearly, with a few glaring exceptions, it has largely worked well for Apple -- but that article outlines conditions where it is counterproductive.
  • Steve was a d***k even before he came back. Based on reports he's always been somewhat of an abrasive character. He's always said he believes in equal opportunity but not equal outcome "I'm a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome." I don't really believe it was Steve Jobs fault for MobileMe failure. Apple has always been poor at web services and social networking. They just don't invest the money and talent into these areas and it shows. Web/iCloud services done right is very difficult. It'll be interesting to see if Apple has closed the loop with iCloud and enabled reliable Core Data sync and enabled some solid sharing/collaboration features. Time will tell. Getting yelled at is nothing. As a former military piece of property I was yelled at almost daily. You just learn to take constructive criticism regardless of whether it was delivered gently or not.
  • People were not/are not afraid of being yelled at or when bearing bad news, but the risk of being fired, or at the least, having their prospects of advancement within the company diminished. I respect your service, but note that the military is far more rational in this regard than the typical corporate hierarchy, where scapegoats are commonplace. When you venture into something you are not good at is precisely when being a dick leaves you vulnerable. If Apple is not good at web services, for example, then when trying to ramp it up there *will* be times when they stumble, and Minion A has to report problems to Manager B, and so on up the chain to somebody with the juice to decide a course correction, potentially all the way to the CEO. If anybody along that chain is afraid to report the problem, no corrections are made, resulting in things public failures like the Mobile Me launch, or, more typically, continued less-than-stellar performance in things like web services. In terms of talent acquisition, it becomes almost a vicious cycle. If your company gains a reputation for eating those who report problems, it becomes exceedingly difficult to recruit top talent to tackle tough problems outside the current core competency. Few people willingly stride into the lion's den, especially if they are talented enough to have other options.
  • Re: "It was his fault that the MobileMe launch went so poorly, not ours." Agree, but not because Steve was or was not a dick. I think it's because Steve was non-technical. Because he seemed to be best at managing and guiding projects that he could hold in his hand or otherwise directly interact with. Things that he could see and experience, and then criticize while pointing his finger at specific problems. This is what made him such a wizard at guiding the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad projects. If it didn't please him, it either got fixed or didn't ship. Mobile Me, on the other hand, was (meant to be) an enabling infrastructure. A bunch of servers providing computing power for services that were formerly free when they were iTools and .Mac. Nothing to really point your finger at. No way for a non-technical person to judge progress or to provide constructive / destructive feedback. And, most importantly, no way for a single user like Steve to stress test the system with millions of activations and transactions per week. He could easily hammer on iMovie or iDVD and find problems with them. He couldn't push Mobile Me servers beyond their limits by himself, and he probably didn't have the technical knowledge to suggest ways in which the Mobile Me team could do that. Also, Steve was already extremely busy with iPhone 3G development, testing, and launch. iPhone 3G and Mobile Me were launched at the same time. Along with iPhone OS 2.0 and the App Store (which required Xcode support for the iPhone OS APIs.) So he focused on the things he understood the best: the experience created by the iPhone, its OS, and the App Store. So, fear-based management or not, there was far too much on Apple's plate in the Mobile Me release timeframe in general. And Steve was so focused on the physical products and OS experience, that he was forced to delegate. He trusted the Mobile Me team to deliver a fully-tested, robust infrastructure that was worth the $99 per year. They didn't. (P.S. I think Steve's strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes have deeply affected Apple's products. Secrecy for example. Secrecy was one of Steve's strengths, going back to the original Macintosh project. And secrecy is more or less the opposite of "social." Hence the failure of Ping and the relative weakness of "social" in Apple's software ecosystem.)
  • The dickishness *did* contribute heavily here, if the account is accurate. Steve Jobs may not have had the technical expertise to analyze infrastructure concerns or the facilities to perform a legitimate stress test, but there were people in the company who did, and they were not heeded. Whether the precise dickishness was arrogance (if Steve heard the concerns and pooh-poohed them, despite not being an infra guy) or instilling fear (people unwilling to bear bad news up the chain), but is irrelevant. If you hire experts in a specific area and your corporate culture leads to their expertise going unheard, you are going to hit problems in those areas.
  • MobileMe worked for me. I think the idea was ahead of its time. We now live in a world with more cloud based options and simplicity but when MobileMe was launched the options were limited. I used it and idisk the same way I use Dropbox and iCloud now just that it was not as fast or simple to access. I feel it failed for one simple reason, it did not offer a free alternative. MobileMe/.Mac were subscription services. If back in 08, or earlier with .mac, they offered 1-2 gigs free and more space for a fee (like Dropbox) the service would have been adopted by more people. I paid for the service and used it all the time. Now I have to use multiple cloud services to fill the gap made from the demise of MobileMe/.Mac.
  • I honestly can't not see that... I've had the unfortunate experience of working for a boss for a, thankfully, short term, who didn't budge from his opinions for the most part leading development of our corporate services in different directions when studies and we, the developers, insisted on taking a different direction. Change is usually , but sometimes you gotta listen to others to make sure that it doesn't turn out bad either.