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What's Up With Steve Jobs' Death Wish, Anyway?

Apple (AAPL) is amazingly effective, profitable, and innovative. So why does CEO Steve Jobs seem intent on corporate self-destruction?

Yesterday I noted that one reason for Apples success is that Steve Jobs isn't afraid to fail. The company takes brilliant chances that would make most executives sit and ask for a glass of water:

  • It has shifted emphasis from the Mac to the iPhone and iPad.
  • The iPad is an example of an all-or-nothing bet, as Jobs has made it clear that the tablet is the future of the company and the most important thing he's done.
  • Apple plans to take on Google (GOOG) in online mobile ads; Amazon (AMZN) in media sales; and Microsoft (MSFT), Google, and dozens of hardware companies in devices. All in one move.
  • The company has managed to alienate long-standing partner Adobe (ADBE), which seems ready to walk away -- potentially bad news for Apple's key Mac customer base of media and design creatives.
  • When an employee lost an iPhone and it fell into the hands of Gizmodo, Apple insisted that police go in and raid the home of the blogger who wrote about it.
But the flip side of fearlessness is recklessness, and Jobs has shown that in abundance because of the degree of control he has pulled from media companies, third party developers, advertisers, and even consumers. The iPhone developers' agreement hamstrings independent software companies in how they develop applications and bring their products to market. It's why the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are currently in discussions over who will investigate Apple.

Some advertisers claim that the iAd program "double dips," effectively charges advertisers twice for response and forces them to pay a premium for Apple's help to develop ads. Combine that with contractual language Apple uses to keep third party ad networks from gleaning analytic data on users, and you have the reason why the FTC is also taking an interest in the advertising program.

It's as if Apple decided to become a 1990s Microsoft on steroids and gather as much power and control as possible. Apple has always been control hungry, but the steps it has taken recently outstrip any restrictions it might have imposed on business partners in the past. That's why I call this a death wish, because no one could think that regulators wouldn't take strong interest and, given Apple's growing control over important markets, consider severe measures to curtail the company's activities. The implications are clear as daylight, and I can't image that no one at Apple can see them.

It's as though Jobs is taking every chance, burning every bridge, almost daring competitors and regulators to take action. Apparently he's been more driven than usual, acting as if time were out and thinking of his legacy:

Apple watchers can't help but notice a sped-up, almost frantic quality to the way Jobs has been operating this year. It's almost as if he views himself as a besieged general -- surrounded by advancing forces and running out of time -- intent on making one last stand against the enemy, which, in Jobs's case, may be time itself.
Maybe it's a resurgence of his cancer or a problem with his liver transplant. Perhaps Jobs simply suffers from hubris as a result of intoxicating success. Whatever the case, it looks as though Jobs is steering Apple in a game of chicken. Only he's driving toward a semi-truck that doesn't seem inclined to veer out of the way.