John Sculley is perhaps best known as the man who fired Steve Jobs from Apple, which is probably not the thing you want as your legacy. Sculley was a marketing man who helped launch the original MacIntosh, to great success and profits. He had little tolerance for Jobs’s excursions into unproven technologies, usually by leading renegade groups inside Apple that had minor regard for budgets.

Sculley did lead Apple from $800 million to $8 billion in sales during his 10 years there, although he did help himself a bit; in 1987, he was named as Silicone Valley’s highest paid executive, with a salary of $2.2 million (chump change by today’s standards, of course). He was forced out in 1993, and Jobs came back, in glory.

Anyway, Sculley has written a book titled Moonshot, which is a Silicone Valley term meaning “Something that is so significant that the world is different after it happens than it was before.” Most entrepreneurs devoutly wish for a moonshot, and a few achieve that status, and even fewer on the scale of actually landing on the moon. Google and Facebook come to mind, and Excel in its earlier days qualified; it has been credited with being the “killer app” (remember those?) that made the personal computer change from a hobbyist’s toy to a business necessity.

It comes to mind that a moonshot can be bad, as well as good: The recent fiasco of Volkswagen cheating on emissions tests will certainly be something of a moonshot for it. If it ever does trace the scandal back to the person who originally said, “Hey, why don’t we bury something in the code that changes the numbers and lets us keep the performance? No one will ever know.”

I’m sure there will be a hanging party on the Autobahn. It certainly changes the perception of precision German engineering.

Anyway, Sculley has invested in a few companies since his own ousting from Apple, including MetroPCS and Buy.com, and is now involved in producing low-cost mobile phones, primarily in India. As such, he is worth listening to about growing a business (as well as hearing some intriguing stories about the early days of Apple).

Today’s Moonshot

What he sees as a major shift for businesses is customers paying more attention to the opinions of other customers than they are to the messages of the incumbent companies. This is probably not great news for advertising or marketing people.

Looking for dinner near a movie theater in an unknown area, we recently went to Yelp and scanned through reviews, which can be an uncertain process. However, in this case, our efforts produced a small Peruvian restaurant that was great.

As this technology evolves, perhaps allowing sites to weed out the fawning reviews of the owners and the slams of their rivals, it will increase in value. Really, who are you going to believe — the smiling woman holding up the product provocatively in the ad or 800 one-star reviews on Amazon?

Just look at the one-word blurbs showing up in movie ads, such as “amazing” and “provocative,” versus the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes: “Amazing in its ability to combine trite ideas with bad acting on what should be a provocative subject.”

And does anyone consider buying a car without a ton of peer reviews?

Sculley acknowledges that this is just an extension of what used to be known as “word of mouth,” but on a much greater scale. That’s true.

Those of us in local businesses know that word of mouth can king you or kill you. Some years ago, when someone asked me why another computer consultant had moved to the Eastern Shore, my reply was, “Because he ran out of people around here who didn’t know him already.” You don’t want to be that guy.

More War Stories

In an interview with PC Magazine (the editor of which was, no doubt, motivated by pushing the book), Sculley revealed some other intriguing stories of earlier days in the computer industry.

I never knew that Steve Case, the founder of AOL, went to Apple at a time when he couldn’t make payroll, and in return Apple got 5% of AOL and a license to use much of its technology. The result was an Apple product called eWorld, an AOL clone that died a well-deserved death. Later, Microsoft launched MSN as an information service. Neither was a true browser, as we know it today.

That came around because an engineering student at the University of Illinois was working with an Apple prototyping tool that tied Macs to the Cray supercomputers on campus. Apple hoped to build what it termed a Knowledge Navigator, which looked like an early version of Siri, combined with Google on steroids, long before either existed. This led to an amazing video with the help of George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas), whose purpose was to convince investors to look ahead to what computers could do. We’re still not anywhere near what that video promised. Nevertheless, that student and some friends formed Netscape and produced Netscape Navigator.

Bill Gates saw what Navigator could do and started MSN, but it was too late; although Internet Explorer would come to dominate the browser world because of its inclusion in Windows, Microsoft would never lead in browser technology.

Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and does PC troubleshooting and network help for small businesses, while trying very hard to not be “that guy.” He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at cliff@feldwick.com. Older columns are online at http://feldwick.com.