The Man Who Sold the World: A Steve Jobs Retrospective

When Apple informed the world on Wednesday that CEO Steve Jobs would be stepping down and Tim Cook would be taking his place, it was one of the most important milestones in business history. Likened to the departure of Henry Ford or Walt Disney as heads of their respective companies, Jobs’ tenure not only represents the mind that saved Apple from collapse to being one of the most powerful companies in the world, but the personality and vision that defined it. Interestingly, many media outlets mistakenly reported that Jobs was dead instead of simply stepping down… which is a bizarre and yet telling look into how we, as a culture, see Jobs and Apple as being inextricable from one another and unable to exist apart. It also begs the question: If we thought Jobs was dead, in what light do we now see Apple?

Dorks in a Garage

We’ve all seen the photos of a young Jobs next to the affable Steve Wozniac putting motherboards together in a garage and looking (to be frank) like a couple of dorks. We love photos like these; they’re easy to like and they make us feel as if we have a heart-connection with the early days of Apple — a company which above all others evokes a passionate and protective loyalty from its patrons. It’s a matter of historical record now (or, if you like made-for-TV movies, the plot of Pirates of Silicon Valley), but even then Jobs was focused first and foremost on making computers for people and not keeping them inside the walled garden reserved for geeks and nerds. As journalist Peter Cohen recently explained, “Jobs started with the user experience and then told his people to work backwards from that.” Jobs’ brainchild, the Macintosh, sought to supplant command-line terminal-style PCs using cryptic DOS and UNIX interfaces with a more human point-and-click graphical representation of files, folders, devices and tasks. Though many have scoffed at the suggestion that Apple was first to use a graphical user interface (apparently, that was Xerox), there is no arguing that it was Apple who brought the GUI to the fore and not only made it a must-have feature for computing, but also made it impossible to imagine a modern computer without one.

That phase of Jobs’ connection to Apple came to a somewhat simpering and almost pathetic end, as his once-friend John Sculley locked horns with the famously headstrong Jobs and, as we all know, drove him from the company that he himself built. For 13 years, the world would know an Apple that wasn’t synonymous with the bespectacled, megalomaniacal visionary. And so began the arid and meandering era of Sculley and Amelio in which Apple descended from its headstrong and revolutionary influence on the technology world in the mid-80s to becoming the butt of its jokes.

Apple Without Steve

It seems funny to think of it now, but the cover of Wired Magazine’s June 1997 issue was something no Apple fan will ever forget: The Apple logo (back when it was rainbow colored) surrounded by what looked like barbed wire, and one word below it: Pray. The image was iconic (and, later, ironic) for Apple fans and critics alike, as there was no denying its timeliness: Microsoft’s product line, especially the juggernaut Windows 95, was cheaper, compatible with the best hardware and software, and had all but taken over the world. Back then, Macs were beige towers with a quirky, antiquated operating system full of weirdness and inefficiency (example: In Mac OS System 7.x, you could bring every CPU process to a complete halt simply by holding the mouse button down and keeping it down). Mac users were very much like a small, quasi-religious group of zealots clinging to an ancient and dead faith. It’s almost impossible to imagine it 14 years later, but it was a time in which Macs were not cool.

Perhaps it’s through this lens that we most clearly see how far wrong Apple can go without Steve Jobs. Every unpleasant stereotype about the Macintosh took root while he was gone: Macs are underpowered, Macs are overpriced, Macs use proprietary technology, Macs are an idea that peaked in the mid-80s, etc. It was an era in which there was no excitement for Apple products and, as Wired Magazine so aptly underlined, most people were waiting for Apple to die. “What would I do?” said Michael Dell about Apple in 1997, “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Though it’s a fool’s errand to single out “villains” in this story, John Sculley and Gil Amelio both seemed to jump when competitors barked, and let public pressure and criticism dilute the clarity of what was once the Apple vision. It was during this era that Mac OS was opened up for licensing by third-party hardware companies, and that was a signal that Apple would capitulate and fold to public pressure, hoping at best that mimicry of Microsoft would save their bacon.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that if Jobs had not returned to Apple (at first as interim “iCEO” after Gil Amelio left, then later as the not-so-interim CEO), they wouldn’t have survived those dark days. Yet, when Apple bought Jobs’ other computer company, NeXT, in 1996 and brought him onto the board of directors, shit got real.

Return of the King

When someone suffering extreme and life-threatening injuries all through their body is brought into the ER, doctors always look to do one thing before all else: Save the heart. If the heart is working, the rest of the body has a shot. So it is with major corporations, except where the human heart pumps blood in and out, corporations pump money. And Apple needed some. This is why among the first and most important lifesavers that Jobs threw to Apple in its 11th hour was also one of the most bold and controversial: Jobs worked out a deal with Microsoft where, in return for a hefty investment of many millions of dollars, Internet Explorer and Outlook would become the default browser and email client on every Macintosh. When Jobs announced this “partnership” at MacWorld Boston in 1997, the Apple-faithful in the audience had no problem with booing the prodigal son. Even for Steve Jobs, asking Mac lovers to watch a giant video screen with Bill Gates’ face on it was asking a bit much. Though it was like bitter medicine for the community built around Apple’s insular and somewhat xenophobic legacy, it was the medicine that broke Apple’s fever and got them on the mend.

And, as Mac users will tell you, Steve dusted his hands of the deal down the road… once Apple was ready to go it without Microsoft’s help.

Jobs is also well known for a piece of advice he gave Nike’s CEO Mark Parker: “Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff,” and it’s advice that he put to work in his own culling of Apple’s fat. Newton, Cyberdog, and Opendoc got biffed instantly into the trash can. Does anyone miss or even remember those technologies? It’s rare to find someone who does, and for good reason. Perhaps the most tangible symbol of Jobs etching a deep line between himself and the Sculley/Amelio era was his open hostility for the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, a grossly overpriced, underpowered limited-edition vanity Mac about which Jobs reportedly said, “I don’t care how you do it, get rid of them.”

With an infusion of money and a lighter, more focused product line, Jobs quickly set forth to perform the next operation on his triage list: Making Apple into something worth saving.

In 1999, Apple revealed the product which gave them their first real home run in roughly 15 years: The iMac. More than any other Apple product, the iMac characterized Jobs’ vision and philosophy about the personal computer. Downplaying tech specifications and nerd appeal and focusing instead on ease of use and aesthetic beauty, the iMac was also the first product of Jobs’ second era as commander in chief that drew an avalanche of criticism and derision from knowitall tech pundits. Meanwhile, the iMac garnered insanely great commercial success. It wasn’t the last time Jobs would prove to the old guard that he knew better and more about what people want. In fact, doing so is what best defines his tenure.

Shortly after the iMac appeared in 1999, Apple revealed its flagship operating system: Mac OS X. It was a completely fresh start for the Mac operating system and left the out-of-date, limited and worn-out “Classic” Mac OS behind forever. More than ten years later, Mac OS X essentially looks and works much the same way it did on day one, a testament to its forward-looking design and longevity. Its powerful and secure UNIX-style kernel combined with its glassy, 3 dimensional GUI and plethora of standards compatibility (goodbye, ADB mouse) was the purring engine under the iMac’s hood. It was the beginning of the end for the Mac’s reputation as  underpowered, overpriced nostalgiaware.

Jobs introduced one more Apple device to the world for which there was no precedent within the product line: A little white music-playing device the size of a deck of cards and able to hold more songs than most people own and, along with it, a new system by which songs could be purchased and added to their collection. Jobs himself confessed, “we’re late to the party,” as MP3 players were already being made and bought, but the iPod quickly entrenched itself as the best and most visible of the pack. As Kleenex is to tissues and Xerox is to photocopiers, the word “iPod” has become interchangeable with “MP3 player” in the minds of the public.

No thorough look at Steve Jobs’ contributions to and visions for Apple would be complete without a nod to the revolutionary software under the hood of both the iPhone and iPad: iOS. Interestingly, the advent of the iPhone since 2006 and the iPad in 2010 have so effectively broken down the walls between consumer technology and the non-geek masses that it’s hardly relevant anymore. Jobs’ philosophy of user experience before all else has never manifested itself more perfectly than in iOS and its devices. Instant on, instant off, touch, swipe, pinch and tilt… intuitive and powerful. Even a year and a half after the iPad has arrived, competitors have utterly failed to produce a device that can equal  its reliability or massive list of available apps. If there’s a note upon which Steve Jobs should end his story with Apple, the iPad’s unchallenged success is the best. His message is more clearly transmitted through the iPad than any other product: Make it beautiful to hold and look at, simplify, don’t focus on tech specs over functionality, make it do what the user wants to do, say no to compromise and always innovate… never emulate.

Le Déluge?

Tim Cook has his work cut out for him. Taking the reigns of the biggest company in the world (recently leap-frogging past Exxon) and standing in the shadow of the man that many people consider to be the greatest CEO any company has ever had at its helm, he’s got to do something truly spectacular, and even then there will be years of skepticism that will never entirely diminish. Don’t feel too bad for him, however; being CEO of Apple isn’t really what you’d call a career failure. He’ll be fine.

Steve will likely find himself taking care of his health a little more, maybe sitting on a porch somewhere sipping herbal tea and poking around on an iPad. My guess is that he will likely think about a conversation he had once with John Sculley while he was still with Pepsi, asking him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Except Sculley’s path took him in another direction, as did Gil Amelio’s and even Steve Wozniak’s. Steve’s path led him to change the world. Wherever he goes from here, we at least owe him a word and a thought of gratitude for teaching the tech world that people come first, machines second.

Corey has been been a tech journalist with a focus on Apple since 1998 and has written for The Loop, MacHome magazine, and as games contributor for The Mac Bible, and co-hosts the iGame Radio Podcast. He works as a corporate consultant and professional musician in Ottawa, Ontario.