This new series A Bird’s Eye View will feature short stories by Tim Bajarin, a 33 year industry veteran of the technology industry. These stories and anecdotes are ones Tim has collected through his 30-plus years as an analyst and will provide a behind the scenes look at many of the industries historical moments.
In 1981, when I joined Creative Strategies as an analyst, I was asked to cover Apple in my spare time. In those days, mini-computers were the rage and as one of only a few mini-computer analysts, I was asked to start looking at the Apple II since it had the term “computer” in it. The Apple II had started getting attention because a piece of software named Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, starting showing up on the Apple II and for the first time some people saw it as an actually useful tool for business. By that time, Apple was an established company but still very small and was thought of as a company that just created a computer for hobbyists.
In 1981, Steve Jobs had already become a legend in the Valley. He and Woz were heroes to the geeks of that era and often attended the Homebrew Computer Club meetings were they were treated as royals. However, they were mainly lauded for providing the group an affordable PC for them to tinker on. Jobs was not looked at as the business tycoon he would become years later. Although I had seen Jobs around various computer events, I did not meet him in my official capacity as a PC analyst until later that year. It was at this time I encountered the rude and egotistical Steve Jobs who, even back then had no use for the media, let alone us fledgling analysts.
Over the next two years I bumped into him at various events and heard him speak a few times. He even graced us with his presence once or twice to tell us about some new product or idea he had. However, I got to see the highly temperamental and explosive Steve Jobs right after Jobs and Apple’s board had hired John Sculley to become its new CEO. Sculley had been on the job two months and I was invited to come to Apple and meet with Steve and Sculley to discuss some new changes to Apple’s business focus and to get my feedback on a product idea they were thinking about. About half way through the meeting, a guy knocked on the door and interrupted us to tell Steve about a problem the guy deemed urgent. After this person explains the problem, Jobs goes ballistic. Calls him an idiot, says he does not know what he is talking about and just undercuts him in nasty ways. John and I both put our heads down in embarrassment and the look on Sculley’s face suggested he was possibly thinking, “What have I got myself into?”
It was because of these types of outbursts and lack of managing skills that Apple’s board and John Sculley decided to fire Jobs at the end of that year. As you know, Jobs was very angry with this and decided to start NeXT, which in his mind was the next major evolution in PCs. He became determined to show Sculley and the world he was the only one who could deliver the future of personal computing. Of course, that venture pretty much failed and this period of Steve’s life proved to be kind of a wilderness experience for him. While he was at NeXT he had no contact with analysts and had minimal contact with the media. So most of us did not have a real sense of what Jobs was thinking during that time, although we did know he had bought Pixar and was looking at being the next Cecil B. DeMille.
Steve Jobs 2.0
But the next time I met Steve Jobs professionally was the second day he was on the job after he rejoined Apple in 1997. To my surprise, this Steve Jobs was relatively humble, seemed chastened from some of his past incidents and I thought he had actually matured quite a bit thanks to his experiences at NeXT. The fact he had married during this time and had two kids probably had an influence on his demeanour too. This meeting came about because Apple’s PR team at the time thought it would be good for him to meet with some hand picked analysts and media to share his thoughts about Apple and what he was going to do to help them. At the time he took over, Apple was $1 billion in the red and we know they were six weeks from filing for bankruptcy. When I asked him how he would save Apple, he gave me one response I expected and another I did not see coming at all. The first thing he told me was Apple seemed to have lost its way over the years and he was going to go back and focus on the needs of his core customers. He explained it was the graphics professionals, engineers, desktop publishing and creative professionals that put the Mac on the map and Apple had dropped the ball on meeting their needs. He said he would first focus on delivering to them the best Mac possible to meet their needs and use this as a starting point to stabilize the company.
But the second thing he said he was going to do was to pay more attention to industrial design. He had been furious that a past CEO, Michael Spindler, had made the Mac look like a standard PC and was determined to set the Mac apart from PC competitors as soon as possible. I remember at the time thinking he was crazy. Here Apple was in serious financial hot water and he thought making the Mac look more unique would save Apple? Apparently he was already thinking of the original iMac’s design at the time and sure enough, when the candy colored iMacs hit the market 18 months later, these new Mac’s reignited interest in Apple products and helped give Apple a more solid financial footing for him to start rebuilding Apple.
As I look back at that meeting, I realize now his comments on industrial design were really at the heart of his ultimate vision for the company and reemphasized to me the amazing attention to detail he would bring back to Apple this second time around. While he was cautious about which markets he would enter with new products in the future, his goal seems to have been to see what products got serious potential from the market and then reinvent them with an eye on industrial design. While he did not invent the MP3 player, he reinvented it and made design a key element of the iPod’s success. The same goes for the iPhone. While he did not invent smartphones, his powerful industrial design eye when applied to the iPhone revolutionized the market for these products. Tablets have been around since 1989, yet it took Jobs’ sleek, rich design of the iPad to legitimize this market and make it the major disruptor to the PC business it has become.
At that meeting with Steve Jobs the second day he came back to Apple, I had no idea a simple statement about industrial design would become one of the most powerful reasons why Apple is the Apple of today. Not content with “me too” products, from the beginning of his second tenure as Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs clearly knew what he was doing and as he has said in public many times, “I create products I want to use”. For Steve, that meant sleek and beautifully designed technology that makes Apple stand out amongst the sea of sameness that permeates the tech world today.