The return of Steve Jobs and the rise of Apple

When I first started at Microsoft back in 1991 Apple was more or less a relic of what it used to be.  Keep in mind it was still a cash cow for Microsoft as we owned the core application set for Apple, Microsoft Office for the Mac.  However it was a company seriously lost in what it wanted to be and where it was going.  the one thing Apple did have going for it was a fiercely loyal user base.  Even though Microsoft was 90% of the market, Apple had 10% and it was going nowhere. 

At the time the original founders of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were not to be found.  Jobs had been forced out by then CEO John Scully and was off trying to do the next big thing at NeXT computer.  In addition he bought a small company from Lucas that became Pixar (it did pretty well). On the other hand Wozniak nearly was killed in a plane crash and not too long after would walk away from Apple (though he still is on the Apple payroll).  In a lot of ways you can parallel Woz with Microsoft Co-founder, Paul Allen.  John Scully grew Apple significantly after the release of the Mac, however, he was never able to generate the buzz and excitement around Apple that it deserved.  Scully came from a successful career at Pepsi and was no doubt a talented marketer.  However after 18 years in technology one thing I firmly believe in is if you are going to be a cutting edge technology company you need someone from the industry to guide you and set the vision for the future, to generate buzz, to generate excitement.  I have always said the tech sector is more Hollywood than Wall Street.  Technology leaders who cater too much to Wall Street, will ultimately doom the company.

For the next 5 years at Microsoft I watched as Apple went through various CEO’s and considered licensing the Mac OS similar to what Microsoft was doing with its OEM channel.  I watched as they launched a Windows Virtual Machine so they could run Windows Applications.  It always seemed like Apple was throwing darts at the board trying to find someway that something would stick.  At one point Microsoft even made an investment in Apple, just to show we were good guys.   Things would start to change in 1996 when Apple purchased NeXT Computer, bringing back Steve Jobs to the company he helped found.  It ushered in one of the great comeback stories in the history of high-tech.

It used to be said in the industry that you can have a PC any color you want as long as it is beige.  It was sadly very true.  In addition to the giant CRT screens we had in the day it made for a very ugly desktop.  One of the first things that was noticable when Steve came back to Apple was the launch of Mac’s in color.  The orange and lime green seemed to be favorites.  Some of the best ideas in the tech industry are the simplest.    In 1999 I remember Bill Gates showing off some new Dell PC’s that had some color to them and he mockingly said “We can do color to”.  It is and will always be a challenge for Bill to understand the “hollywood” side of technology.  Color was important because the beige was so ugly. 

For those who remember around this time in  the late 90’s a company called Napster became very popular.  Napster did some things that Microsoft liked a whole lot.  Mainly it allowed end-users to share music files over the internet.  Thus promoting the power of the PC and leveraging the value of the internet.  Now at this point I can only guess, but my feeling is that someone at Apple could see the real value here – which was that these PC’s had large hard drives that enabled you to store a lot of music, would it not be cool if it was mobile?  You could put a hard drive in a little plastic case with ear phones and carry it with you.  In October 2001 Apple launched something called the iPod and later a music service called iTunes.  As we all know these have gone on to be gigantic success.  Microsoft has partners doing their own MP3 players and I remember going into the Best Buy looking at some of them, then I picked up a iPod.  At first I was not impressed with its DOS like interface than I started touching and trying to click the wheel, at first it did not seem that responsive.  Then I took my thumb and made a semi-circular!  After that those other MP3  players were dust. The iPod was huge for Apple in the sense they were no longer the niche player the Mac, they were now the darlings of the every day end-user. As momentum continues Microsoft finally scrapped the partner model and came out with the Zune (I have had several).   These devices work well, are cool and have the “wheel” like feel (apparently Apple forgot about the patent process).  The challenge for any company is once a competitor has established a huge market lead, can you ever catch up?  Not to mention on the advertising front I see Apple iPod ads everywhere, on TV, on Billboards.  I cannot recall seeing one Zune ad.  Another area that always has concerned me is what our response at Microsoft, while I was there, was to Apple.  the typical, it is very proprietary.  They really don’t work that well. As Steve B would say, “blah, blah, blah..” I would say, “who cares?”  If end users like the experience and are happy with the $.99 price tag, they will continue to download songs from iTunes.  As of this writing more than 10 billion songs have been downloaded from iTunes.

As the story goes Randall Stephenson, CEO of ATT Wireless (then Cingular Wireless I was in a meeting with Steve Jobs.  Steve had just shown him a new mobile phone Apple had been developing.  Randall just kept playing with the phone, fixated on its beautiful and responsive touch screen user interface.  Steve Jobs is known as one of the toughest negotiators in the business.  Randall was a long time telco guy who had net and negotiated withe th best.  He also knew that what he was holding represented something bit, something that could turn the tables against some of ATT’s biggest competitors Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.  Unlike most phones carried in a store which are in many cases subsidized by the manufacturer, Steve wanted it sold and all the revenue.  ATT could get the  voice and date plan revenue, but Steve wanted everything else.  In the end the device was too good to pass up.  Steve Jobs had just got an unprecedented deal in the wireless industry.  This launched the march towards the delivery of one of the most “revolutionary” hand-held devices in the mobile phone industry, the Apple iPhone.  I had a friend contracting at ATT at the time working on getting the online payment for mobility set up and all he would say was everything being done in Atlanta was geared towards the launch of the iPhone.  This was a device with a serious amount of weight being thrown behind it.

The  iPhone launched on June 29, 2007.   As Bill Gates would say later on, “Microsoft did not set the bar high enough”.  The  iPhone was a huge success and that is an under statement.  It did a number of things better than had ever done before.  First was the touch screen.  It was responsive.  Very responsive.  You could be up and doing something within seconds.  Second the mobile browser experience was easy and the content you got back was readable.   Every device I have ever had the mobile browse experience has been different with each device and very painful.  Third it created a market for mobile applications.  Prior to the  iPhone making money on mobile applications was a dream more than a reality.  Competitors will argue, again, Apple is a closed environment (for you non-technical folks – it’s Apple’s way or the highway).  I will say again and again, that is the argument of technical people, if end users like the experience they support with their wallets and do not care about open environments versus closed.  The iPhone will go down in history as a major technology milestone and another big hit for Apple and Steve Jobs.

Today Apple is getting ready to launch another new device, the iPad.  The orders are building and maybe Apple can do it again.  Now the iPad is yet another attempt at the Tablet.  Does anyone remember the Apple Newton?  Microsoft Pen for Windows? The Microsoft TabletPC?  Will this time the idea of a usable tablet finally become reality?  My view initially is that Apple is riding its wave of success to create yet another big sea change in the industry.  Early views of the iPad are it is just an enlarged version of the iPhone.  In the latest issue of Wired Magazine they do raise the question of interaction with computers.  If you think about how we as people interact with our technology it has not changed on over 20 years.  We have a monitor, keyboard and mouse.  I will say having been at Microsoft 18 years there were many efforts from the top down to drive the success of tablets.  To change the interaction of user and technology.  If Apple succeeds with the iPad it will be a huge psychological blow to Microsoft.   Apples first attempt in over 15 years after the many attempts by Microsoft and it is a huge success?   In my view this goes back to what I wrote earlier, software, computing technology has become pervasive.  A generation of youth do not know of life without a PC or the internet.  It has become an extension of the individual.  It is now part of our fashion culture.  If it makes us more productive, great but let’s have fun doing it.

Bill Gates has left Microsoft.  Today Steve Jobs is the poster child of the technology industry.  He is the rock star pumping out hit after hit.  The movie star who cannot make a bad film.  He is in the zone.  From when I started to when I was let go at Microsoft the journey of Apple has been an interesting and amazing story to watch unfold.   All tech stars rise and fall. The list is long WordPerfect, Lotus, Borland, Netscape, AOL, etc Apple certainly did this, but then to rise again bigger then what they were before has been a spectacle to behold.  What they are doing now is not so much about  how they are influencing technical innovation, but how they are impacting the global culture.

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