Sunday, November 25, 2012

What is Apple's objective function?

Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is a lot of fun--at least in part because it is not a hagiography.

One of the most striking things about the book is that Jobs never pushed profit maximization per se--he pushed "great products."  When John Scully pushed out Jobs and ran the company, he did push profit maximization--and Apple nearly went out of business.  Re-enter Jobs with his products-first philosophy, and Apple eventually becomes the most valuable company in history.

When economists model firms, we inevitably assume profit maximization, and then allow firms to compete either through price or quality.  The exception to this is a principal-agent set-up, where managers are seeking to maximize their own compensation.  But this doesn't really work for Apple, where Jobs was both a principal and an agent.

Maybe none of this matters--that making great products is a sufficiently strong proxy for profit maximization.  But Job's desire to make great products led him to care a lot less about cost minimization than, say, Dell--the chapter on how fanatical Jobs was about the plastic case molding for the original Macintosh underscores how Jobs tended not to think about marginal revenue and marginal cost when making decisions.