Al Gore: Asset or liability?

Few additions to a company's board cause even the barest ripple of reaction from shareholders, never mind customers.

But few companies are the lightning rod that is Apple Computer Inc., and few board additions list "vice president of the United States" on their resume.

When Apple said March 19 that former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. had been elected to its board, the initial reaction was that of surprise, with some mild approval and criticism.

Famous arch-conservative and longtime Mac user Rush Limbaugh promptly posted his dismay on his Web site, characterizing it as "devastating."

"I have to see if one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch," Limbaugh wrote. "Gosh, I hope not, and I hope he doesn't have anything to do, other than ceremonial duties, with this outfit."

Reaction in forums on the Mac Web was considerably more fierce.

"What an embarrassment and a joke!" wrote one poster at The Mac Observer site. "Apple -- get real! Or do you want failure??"

Wrote another: "Now tech pundits can write about the death of Apple and I will believe it! Could they have chosen a more dislikable individual?"

A few were so distraught they said they were ready to abandon Mac altogether.

"I am definitely going to re-evaluate the use of Apple products," someone wrote. "I suspect I will start reviewing WINDOWS and DELL!"

Not all were unhappy, though. Plenty of posters cheered the move: "Adding a former vice president of the United States is smart, regardless of political affiliation. Adding a former vice president of the United States who is supportive of and savvy about high technology [and Apple] is brilliant."

Many of those who favored Gore on the board expressed hope that his many years of service with the federal government could help Apple: "If the move helps Apple swim the shark-infested waters of Washington concerning upcoming legislation in all areas of technology, then I cannot see any harm," one poster wrote.

More startling than the content of comments was their number. By last Sunday evening, The Mac Observer site had recorded 163 comments on the Gore article it posted Thursday. Few Mac Observer articles exceed 20 reader comments.

A Gore thread in the Macintosh News Network forum had 236 posts, while a thread at Slashdot.com had an astonishing 940.

Few of the comments, however, focused on Gore's qualifications to serve or whether those qualifications could help Apple.

For example, most of the posts on Slashdot's site debated Gore's well-known but misinterpreted comment about inventing the Internet.

Gore's actual quote was, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet," referring to his efforts to procure financing for the nascent network that later evolved into the Internet.

Political opponents and late-night comedians transformed Gore's statement into the joke that continues to endure.

Not surprisingly, partisan politics dominated the comments on Gore, both pro and con. Discussions often veered off into vitriolic debates over the disputed 2000 election that Gore lost to George W. Bush, and the consequences of the president's victory.

With the political dynamite ignited, comments grew personal and nasty, prompting admonishments from forum moderators.

The moderator of the Mac Rumors Web site forum, for instance, grew so frustrated that he closed the discussion after 177 increasingly shrill posts. "The Al Gore thread was shut down due to off-topic posts and personal attacks/insults, as well as avoidance of the profanity filter," moderator "Arn" wrote.

"We're seeing a very, very vocal and upset group that's very much against what they think Al Gore stands for," said Bryan Chaffin, editor-in-chief of The Mac Observer Web site. "They're the ones driving the conversation."

Chaffin considers the Gore appointment a political statement, but agreed with some posters that his experience in government could help Apple.

With issues like copy protection -- also known as "digital rights management" -- much discussed in Washington these days, Chaffin said any separation that may have existed between politics and technology has been lost.

The flood of posts on political topics having little to do with Gore's actual qualifications for the board post indicates people are reacting less to the news itself as to the underlying issues they have with this country's two main political parties and their respective policies.

In other words, the mention of Al Gore simply served as a trigger for people to spout off on current volatile issues, such as the war with Iraq and the struggling economy. Gore otherwise has never been a polarizing national figure as, say, Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich were.

Be that as it may, we're still left with the questions that started all this: Why did Apple choose Al Gore, and can he help the company?

A company's goal when selecting directors is to choose people who can best help the board fulfill its primary functions. Such functions include working with the CEO to set and execute a corporate strategy; monitoring the performance of the CEO; and acting as a fiscal guardian, protecting the interests of the shareholders.

"Al brings an incredible wealth of knowledge and wisdom to Apple from having helped run the largest organization on the world – the United States government – as a congressman, senator and our 45th vice president," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a statement.

Jobs added that Gore is an "avid Mac user," though Gore had admitted to switching to a PC when questioned about it in February 2000 during his presidential campaign.

Considering that most corporate board members have deep experience in managing for-profit operations, years of government service and ownership of a Macintosh seem thin qualifications.

"I cannot identify anything he can contribute to the board," said Charles Wolf, an analyst with New York-based investment bank Needham & Co. "He hasn't been in private industry, he hasn't been a manager at any point in his career, he has no background in economics."

Wolf called Gore a "cosmetic appointment," adding that Apple would have been better served by someone "who has a vision of where digital entertainment is going," as he sees Apple's business heading increasingly in that direction.

But Kerry Moynihan, a managing partner at the McLean, Va., office of Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm, said Gore's familiarity with the mechanics of government could prove a significant benefit.

"I wouldn't want a vice president chairing my financial committee," Moynihan said, "but with the glare of even more stringent public disclosure, I'd want somebody with a good sense of how to deal with the regulatory community."

Moynihan said companies have been closely examining the composition of their boards, seeking to assemble a group with complementary abilities. Adding diverse skills and experience to the selection criteria makes the choice of Gore much less of a head-scratcher.

Besides Jobs, the other current members of Apple's board are: Intuit Corp. Chairman Bill Campbell, J. Crew Inc. Chairman and CEO Millard Drexler; Genentech Inc. Chairman and CEO Arthur D. Levinson; and Micro Warehouse President and CEO Jerry York.

Apple last week announced plans to add still another director, bringing total board membership to seven, with five of those independent.

Needham's Wolf considers the Apple board "very good," with "lots of operational experience." He noted, however, that while Apple's current board has been criticized -- Business Week last year called it one of the nation's worst -- "it's stellar compared to the board before Steve got there.... it was totally dysfunctional."

Wolf said he didn't think adding Gore would hurt. "At worst, he's neutral," he said. "Steve [Jobs] controls the board anyway."

Perhaps. But my sense is that Apple's board had reasons for bringing in Gore that it preferred not to disclose. Advice in coping with government regulations and technology-related legislation would be valid reasons that Apple may have thought too gauche to trumpet.

In any case, I wouldn't put my Macs on eBay just yet.

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