The motto was one by which Steve Jobs lived all his life. He may have been fortunate to grow up in Silicon Valley but he and his buddy Steve Wozniak (‘Woz’) were not only creative enough to be part of the California counter-culture of the mid-1970s but smart enough to be aware of the opportunities unfolding around them as technology went into overdrive.
It was Woz who was the ‘Phone Phreak’; he developed hand-held devices to control sound frequencies used by AT&T and Pac Bell to run the entire local phone system. They made international phone calls for fun. But it was Jobs who saw the potential in Woz’s prototype Apple I at the Homebrew Computer Club. He started in business as unconventionally as he continued, financing the first 50 by persuading Cramer Electronics to sell them all the components on 30-day terms and working 24/7 to deliver in time. Not one share was sold to raise capital. That happened when they went public in 1980 on the back of the much more successful Apple II—the most successful Initial Public Offering since Ford Motors.
The whole area was abuzz at the time: Intel in Santa Clara, AMD in Sunnyvale, HP in Palo Alto and many other spin-offs originated from Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), perhaps the most innovative and influential technology centre in the world. It invented what made Apple: the intuitive interface in the form of a high-resolution display screen and ‘mouse’, as well as a keyboard. When Jobs saw this, he formed an entirely new team to develop a commercialised version.
And so, the Macintosh was born: a compact, luggable single unit when the IBM PC that was leading the market was a drawer-sized clunker. Its launch by TV ad during the 1984 Superbowl interval is still stunningly innovative—highly effective in reaching non-techies and unheard-of for a technical company. Jobs insisted that Macs talked to each other and through this AppleTalk, a whole group could use a silent, amazingly flexible laser printer while the DOS world buzzed with character-only dot-matrix.
Because no-one was ever fired for buying ‘Big Blue’ and PC’s were unknown territory, IBM dominated the business market. When various clone manufacturers dropped the prices and Microsoft finally worked out how to mimic Apple’s graphic-based intuitive interface with Windows 3.0 in 1990, Apple’s market share became squeezed into the creative sector. Graphic designers and architects loved Macs but most computers were used by accountants and secretaries who needed a spreadsheet, a word processor and little else. Although Apple produced successively better computers, they were derivative. Jobs became frustrated and was squeezed out.
He went on to found NeXt, which reiterated his fixation with style and presentation but could not be made competitive enough, nor penetrate a market dominated by standards and the inertia associated with them. His stint at Pixar created opportunities in film animation that are still being explored today. But it was when NeXt sold its innovative, UNIX-based operating system to Apple in 1996 that the marriage made in heaven was consummated.
Because the now-widely experienced Jobs not only came with the package but, within a year was Apple CEO. Almost immediately, he had a deal to have Microsoft’s industry-standard Office released on the new OS. Innovative, attractive computers like the single-unit iMac and the slim, lightweight MacBook grew the market and a struggling Apple was back in the game. Under Jobs’ direction, there followed a flurry of prescient products, backed by a visionary commitment to what the web could do to promote and support products and starting with the iPod. Complaints flowed that Jobs’ insistence on following a vision was insufferable. But nothing succeeds like success.
But 2007’s introduction of the iPhone, followed closely by the iPad, presented coherent, attractive technical wizardry that appealed to the non-techie. This, as much as anything, has been a the root of Apple’s spectacular growth since 2005. Obviously, thousands of dedicated professionals have made this happen. But the vision of what was required and the drive to achieve it came from the brain of one man: Steve Jobs.
For over 35 years he kept faith with his beliefs, had the courage to follow them, the audacity to be visionary, the articulation to persuade others to follow him and the wit to see when opportunity to pursue realisation was at hand. Not a bad epitaph for a techie. Would that more politicians deserved something similar.