Swinging for the stars: On Apple's hiring of Kevin Lynch

Last night news broke that Adobe's chief technology officer (CTO) Kevin Lynch was leaving to join Apple as their new vice president of technology. Reporting to senior vice president of technologies, Bob Mansfield, rumor has it he'll be charged with coordinating between the software and hardware divisions. Confusion, doubt, and curiosity has followed.

If rumors are accurate, and that's always a big if, what coordination needs to be done between those two divisions, and why would Lynch be the guy to do it? Come to think of it, why would a software and services guy at Adobe report to a core hardware systems guy at Apple? Is that just a holding pattern for something that makes more sense, or does it already make sense in a way that's simply not obvious from the outside? Why him, why there, and what's the plan?

The reason those questions came so quickly and so furiously is that, while Lynch's accomplishments are many, he's perhaps best known to those who've followed Apple and mobile in recent years as one of Adobe's most vocal Flash supporters, and someone who locked horns with Apple, very publicly, several times.

Adobe originally made content creation tools like Photoshop, but eventually their corporate agenda changed. They bought Macromedia, they got into the platform space with Flash, and they bought Omniture and got into metrics. Not happy with merely helping people make stuff, they wanted to lock people into their development and delivery systems. The problem was, those systems, for the most part, sucked.

Apple thought Flash was outdated, inefficient, and inelegant technology and dared Adobe to prove it otherwise not with rhetoric but with code. Adobe failed to do so. After letting Flash languish for years, IE6-style in the face of little or no competition, they were unable to make a version of their power-hungry, security-troubled, performance-challenged plugin that worked well on highly resource constrained mobile platforms.

It was a painful few years for Apple who faced the castigation of a large portion of the user base for somehow "denying" them Flash, for Adobe who faced the embarrassment of not being able to put their player where their mouths were, for content providers who'd become locked into Adobe's delivery platform only to find it wouldn't scale down, and for customers who couldn't care less about the corporate politics and practicalities involved, and were simply pissed they couldn't watch their videos or access restaurant websites on the go.

And Kevin Lynch was, literally, the face of a lot of this contention.

That was his job. As anyone who's every worked product at a company, big or small, will tell you, you toe the company line, magnify what you do well, minimize and hide what you do poorly, attack the competition where they're weak, and defend yourself where you're strong. Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of marketing, had something to say about Android and Samsung as recently as last week.

There's a point, however, when champion can seem like chump, and where a product or decision is so indefensible that continuing to defend it doesn't lend credence but costs credibility.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball quotes Eric Jackson of Forbes to make the argument Lynch passed that point with Flash. Gruber contends that, as CTO of Adobe, rather than defending the player he'd backed, Lynch's job was to recognize Adobe had backed the wrong player, and change strategies long before they lost the game.

Many others in the Apple community echoed Gruber's sentiment, and not only because of Lynch's history with Apple and Flash, but because of Apple's recent history with outside executive hires.

Mark Papermaster from IBM, hired to run chipsets, and John Browett from Dixons, hired to run Apple Retail, both failed to mesh with Apple's corporate culture and neither remains employed there today. Browett especially seemed an unlikely fit for Apple, and those who knew of him or had experience with Dixons pointed that out the moment he was announced. Tim Cook hired, and ultimately fired him in short order, yet lingering questions remain as to why.

My guess is that Apple is willing to take risks in people the way they are in product. They often promote from within, but not always. In this case they took a risk, brought in new blood, and it didn't work out. These recent missteps, in part, inform the reaction to Kevin Lynch. But only in part. Lynch is also undoubtedly more than the sum of a few Flash fiascos. Manton Reece does a great job summing that up:

Was [Lynch] wrong about Flash? Yes. But I choose to view his move to Apple as an indication that he was at the wrong company more than that he was completely wrong-headed. Maybe it was time for something new, a course correction back to the earlier part of his career. Skepticism about this hire is fine, but to treat him as an outsider is to forget the other great things he’s worked on. Once you’ve built Mac software, no matter how long ago, you’ll always be one of us.

For all their design and logistical prowess, Apple strikes me as a company filled with a remarkable amount of hope, and a relentless drive towards excellence not just in product but in themselves. The process of getting hired into Apple has been described as difficult at best, but the work done at Apple is just as often described as best-in-life.

Apple needs talented people. Guy English wrote on Kicking Bear that retention among the rank and file is one of Apple's biggest challenges. It's also a challenge at the higher levels. Apple-quality talent is hard to find, period.

Jon Rubenstein left, as did Tony Fadell, Bertrand Serlet, Ron Johnson, Scott Forstall, and even Bob Mansfield retired only to come back for a new, limited stay. Eddy Cue, Craig Federighi, Dan Riccio, and Jeff Williams have risen from within, and Tim Cook has refactored Apple's organization, but new blood and fresh eyes are needed in the executive suites as well.

Where many companies become risk-adverse, or retreat within, Apple is and always has been relatively fearless when it comes to embracing the future. Papermaster and Browett didn't work out, but Apple is still open, still trying.

Steve Jobs once equated the launch of the iPhone to Babe Ruth hitting home runs. Apple as company seems unafraid to swing for the stars. The consequence is that, sometimes, they swing and miss.

Phil Schiller came to Apple from Macromedia, a company whose kludgy interfaces, customer-hostility, and software DRM is antithetical to Apple's entire approach. Tim Cook came to Apple from Compaq, a company whose uninspired, beige-box take on personal computing is the opposite of the delight Apple strives to instill. Yet both Schiller and Cook merged brilliantly with Apple's culture, and now enjoy the very highest positions within the company. They were home runs. They're stars.

Whether we have faith in Lynch or Apple at this point is irrelevant. Apple's already swung. And they're swinging at the guy who championed Flash, but who also brought Creative Suite to the Creative Cloud, and no doubt has formidable skills far beyond YouTube skits.

Kevin Lynch is another big, bold swing by Apple. Perplexingly, audaciously so. He could be the wrong guy for the job, or a guy who was previously in the wrong job. He could be another strike, but he could also be another home run. He could be another star.

And I like that Apple is still willing to take risks and swing for those stars.

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.