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Does Apple Need Elon Musk?

It deserves to be said — before jumping into the speculation well about Apple’s future with Tesla — that there is perhaps something a bit silly about jumping to endgame planning on the basis of a single quarterly earnings result. Apple may have posted its first negative sales result in 13 years, but it does at least bear mentioning that it was a pretty impressive streak that probably was, logically speaking, going to have to end one day.

But the news was pretty discouraging — enough, in fact, to cause Carl Icahn to stage something of a rather public breakup with Apple. Icahn said his choice to drop his massive 46 million-share holding in Apple had nothing to do with management or Tim Cook — who he praised — but as a measure against international uncertainty.

“It is about China,” he said. “China could be a shadow for [Apple], and we have to look at that.”

In a word — oof.

A patchy earnings report, international troubles and a known Apple booster jumping ship (having made a tidy $2 billion on the deal) have left some wondering what’s next for Apple.

And, in some cases, speculating, creatively — in particular about Apple’s potential future with Tesla.

At least, that is the proposal out of Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University and the director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke.

Writing for The Washington Post this week on Apple’s “dismal earnings,” Wadhwa noted what many have been quietly mumbling for the last eight or so months: Apple is in need of a new idea.

“Its last breakthrough innovation was the iPhone, which was released in 2007. Since then, Apple has simply been tweaking its componentry, adding faster processors and more advanced sensors and playing with its size,” he wrote.

He then stated what has become a pretty common observation these days: Apple needs another visionary, another creative genius. In short, it needs a new Steve Jobs.

The problem with that observation, every time it is made, is that it is pretty obvious, of course, that Apple needs a Steve Jobs. But, then, so does everyone.

But Wadhwa doesn’t want just any new Steve Jobs; he has a particularly candidate he would like to nominate.

“Elon Musk — who has proven to be the greatest visionary of our times.”

And Musk does have some genuine visionary bona fides to bring to the table. His foundational work with PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX all make it pretty hard to argue that Musk is a guy without vision. And those, Wadhwa notes, are just the mainstream accomplishments.

“Musk is also developing the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system in which pressurized capsules ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors. In discussions that I had with him in 2012, Musk told me that his ambition was to build a space station and retire on Mars. He wasn’t joking. I expect he will do this.”

So, Musk is a creative genius with exciting electric car technology and all the vision in the world, and Apple is a firm reportedly hoping to jump into the electric car field, conceivably in the next decade. Is it a match made in heaven?

Well, there is the small issue of Elon Musk’s plan to retire to Mars and the three firms he already runs. Why would he want to be the CEO of Apple?

“My guess is that he would do this — if he were offered the chief executive role. A combination of an operations executive, such as Cook, and a visionary, such as Musk, would be formidable. Apple’s vast resources would allow Tesla to scale up his operations to deliver the nearly 400,000 orders it has received for the Model 3. Tesla would be able to leverage Apple’s global distribution network and incorporate many new technologies. Musk would be able to pursue his dream projects, while Cook worried about delivery and detail.”

Plus, Wadhwa notes, Tim Cook gets a visionary and one who is “a cut above Steve Jobs.”

“This could be a marriage made in heaven. We would get world-changing innovations, as well as our space colonies.”

And while Wadhwa’s enthusiasm is certainly exciting, it seems there are a few holes in this theory.

The first is whether Musk would really want to be the CEO of Apple. Even if one puts aside for the moment his ambition to retire to Mars — or the fact that he thinks AI might be at risk of enslaving the human race (making him a perhaps less-than-perfect fit for a computer company) — the reality is that Apple will always be the house that Steve Jobs built. That would be true even if Musk was the creative force behind the iLoop — the high-tech product we use for our future intergalactic vacations. He would still be the second best CEO in Apple’s history.

The problem with creative geniuses: They are usually pretty keen on top billing.

And though Cook may not be a creative genius, there is every reason to think he is also pretty keen on top billing and not going to be excited to turn the wheel over to Musk — no matter what it might do to Apple’s stock price. And Cook could fairly point out that offering someone else his job might just be a bit premature at this point.

Which is not to say that Apple does not need a post-iPhone plan, because, again, the laws of probability are catching up to it. But Musk — as fascinating an idea to ponder though it may be — is probably more of a moonshot (Mars-shot?) than it would wise to plan around.

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