As someone who has seen Apple equipment from the beginning — and I had personal computers before there was an Apple — it was clear that there was a difference in the way that Apple addressed delivering personal computing. Apple was one of the few companies that wanted to do the whole product: the software, the hardware, the design, the entire user experience. It was all from one company.
And to a certain extent that company was all about one man, Steve Jobs.
I got to know Steve as a member of the Apple advisory board, in the mid-1980s and again in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At the time Microsoft of course was very successful. It has been dominant in the computer software arena. But they never really took much of a position when it came to hardware. They did not really try to dominate the personal computer field by having a Microsoft computer, they did things like the Zune. They were quite happy with having everyone run their operating system, and of course their software, such as Office.
We used to joke that Apple was more like BMW. Their market may not be low end, but they really, really cared about the total experience. It wasn’t just a matter of getting you from point A to point B; it was about the entire journey.
Techies felt that especially when the Macintosh came out. That was a computer a lot of us knew was coming, and were very, very anxious to hear about it. I remember when I was at the City University of New York and the Apple person in charge of marketing the Mac to universities came into the conference room with a sealed up box, and we had to make sure that only certain people were allowed to come into the room to see it. And then he unveiled it in the same way that later on Steve Jobs was known to do on stage.
It was very exciting. It was the first time that you could see all of these concepts that Xerox Labs and SRI and others had pioneered and invented, taking ideas like icons and a mouse and graphical computing. And here was a machine that would cost $1,000. It was attractive. It was, dare I say it, cute. Instead of a “blue screen of death” as it is sometimes called in the Microsoft world, you had icons on the screen with a sad face and everything was graphical. And there was a certain sense of humor in the way it was presented and in the user interface. Just look at the video of how it was announced by Steve onstage in 1984, with the Mac talking to him with a synthesized voice.
That wasn’t something computer companies were known for. I had a long history as a customer of IBM — IBM of course drove the industry and was able to take a dominant position on the hardware side, but they did not have that kind of panache, that kind of flair for getting everyone interested in what they were doing.
Even before Steve’s unfortunate death, people talked about how he was the master at building suspense, at getting everybody interested, and having a following that you just don’t find with any other company or any other individual running a company. People joke about the “reality distortion field,” and we used to talk about that too. We thought about it differently from how it’s described in Walter Isaacson’s new book. It was the feeling that when you were in Steve’s presence you sort of believed absolutely everything that he said.
Then when he left the room, Steve’s spell over you declined, and you started to ask questions — Why didn’t they do this, and why did they decide to do that? But it never occurred to you to think those things when you were in his presence. It was a magical spell he had over his audience.
And then there was Steve’s attention to every detail. No detail was too unimportant for Steve when it came to designing a product and delivering it. Even the packaging, if you look at the packaging used over the years for various products like the iSight or the iPod, they were all absolutely thought out, every element was thought through.
You just knew you were buying something that was special. Like the BMW, it may have cost more, but you realized that you’re getting a product for which someone had really thought about everything. Unfortunately, that is hard to find these days. Other companies tried to do that, but they never really got traction.
When Apple was going to announce the iBook, Steve called and asked if I would do a brief promo saying why I thought a Mac portable would be important for higher education — without my ever having actually seen one. I agreed to do it, and it was an interesting experience because I was reminded how no detail was too small for Steve, including my purple shirt. That shirt was actually selected by Steve: “You’re going to wear the shirt, Ira, when you do this promo.” It was fun to do it, even though I never made it up onto the big screen. As an afterthought, he decided that I was too old for the marketing they were going to do for the iBook. Thanks a heap, Steve.
Or look at the NeXT computer. I have a collection of those, two of them are ones that Steve gave me. It’s clear if you look at the NeXT, you can see where Mac OS X came from, where the concept started. It was all done on the NeXT computer. In fact, not many people realize that the Web was created on a NeXT computer at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Because I had a NeXT so early on, I got to be one of the first people to use hyperlinks and get a glimpse of what we all now take for granted. In some ways, and Steve said this, being forced out of Apple, while a horrible ego-bashing experience for him given that he was founder of the company, allowed him to focus on things that would have been very hard at Apple Computer, at the time when Apple was growing as fast as it was.
But taking five people and founding another company — and these guys were really good — and getting them to focus on creating a new computer from scratch, with Steve investing, and of course Ross Perot and others, gave Steve the opportunity to create the computer of his dreams. It wasn’t a market success, it was a little too expensive — if the Mac was a BMW this was a Ferrari. But it was a very, very amazing computer. You can now buy its descendent for $1,000 with 100 or more times the power than the NeXT ever had. But if I go back and fire up my NeXT computer you can really see what would happen later when he returned to Apple with the intellectual property that Apple purchased from NeXT.
In the 1980s a lot of Apple’s business came from education, both K-12 as well as higher education. Steve had an advisory board of maybe 15 or 20 of us chosen from higher education institutions who would meet twice a year.
People can hardly believe this, knowing how secretive Apple is today about revealing anything to anyone outside the company — and even inside the company. But when we would go out there for the advisory board every six months we literally would get a review of their five-year plan for new computers. We knew the code names, we knew what processors they intended to use, we knew what features would be in each of the new computers, and so on. It was really quite amazing.
Of course, they rarely followed those plans because there were so many things that were changed. Motorola might not announce a processor when they thought they would, memory prices might not drop as much as they projected, everything was as much a series of guesses as any plan for any company would have to be.
When Steve came back to Apple he changed dramatically his view of how valuable it was to talk to customers about what he was going to do, to get feedback from them regarding his plans. Instead secrecy and surprise became very important at Apple. Steve was always one who marched to his own drummer. It didn’t stop Steve if someone else said something was a bad idea, so he stopped revealing future plans.
When he left Apple for NeXT, he created an advisory group there as well, and since the NeXT computer was originally intended as a next-generation workstation for colleges and universities, we were in theory a key part of his developing strategy.
NeXT was so exciting. The NeXT advisory group would go to California twice a year and meet with Steve and his team for a couple of days. It was a mini version of Steve being onstage, with his trademark “one more thing,” and that went on for all the years he was at NeXT.
When he went back to Apple I remained friends with him. When he was at NeXT he visited Princeton and stayed at our house a couple of times. We had dinner with Steve and his sister at our home and I got to know him a bit. That was before he was married and started to have a family of his own.
When Steve came back to Apple from NeXT, he was interested in taking the Mac to the next level with OS X, which was initially almost a straight port of the NeXT operating system. Remember, the original Mac was really a much simpler system, with no multitasking. With the workstation he had developed at NeXT, he had to charge $3,000, and he wanted to get that to down to $1,000, and then eventually on a portable.
I remember once we were at one of those advisory group meetings for NeXT, and Steve decided that we would have dinner at the factory where they had one of the few totally automated robotic assembly lines. We had dinner at tables set up on the floor of the facility, and the plant manager was standing there being super-nervous about having anyone in there, much less having dinner in the plant. It wasn’t a clean room exactly, but you could eat off the floor of this place. Ross Perot was sitting next to me making comments about the upcoming presidential election.
Today Apple is interested in converging iOS (from the iPhone) and OS X (from the Mac). Some people like that, and some find it hard to make the shift. I have an iPhone, and I have OS X on the Mac, and it’s nice to see the same user interface paradigm on the two. It’s true that the iPhone is in some ways a little Macintosh. It is a full-fledged computer. Except for the fact that it doesn’t have a keyboard and a big screen, it really does most of the same things. It’s constrained in certain ways, but less and less.
One day I imagine your phone will include a projector. There are some devices now that allow you to project an image at least as large as a desktop screen. And I imagine that you could do some kind of typing with a virtual keyboard — You would not have to touch the screen, there are devices that project a keyboard on a table and can see where your hands are touching the image on the table. Then you magically have both the screen to look at, and a virtual keyboard. That’s not coming tomorrow, but it’s possible to imagine such a device in the not-too-distant future.
Or the screen can be built into your glasses, and wirelessly connect to your device, so you see the screen in front of you and it sees gestures with your fingers in the air. It’s all possible. Once people started having BlueTooth headsets they would walk on the street, especially in New York, and you couldn’t tell who was schizophrenic and who was just talking on the phone. So it will get worse.
The idea seems like science fiction, but it’s not so fictional anymore. When that capability is built into your glasses, you will walk up to somebody, and it will immediately do facial recognition and then in your peripheral vision you will see the name of the person, the last time you saw them, and the name of their spouse, their children, and their dog, and so on. That’s going to be pretty interesting.
The last time I saw Steve he was back at Apple some years ago. I visited him, and we had a chat in a conference room at Apple. We used to exchange E-mail and talk on the phone on a not-too-regular basis. Before he obtained superstar status, it wasn’t that hard to get in touch with him. But there came a time when he had so many followers; so many people who wished that they could just have a chat with him about something; he was running Apple and Pixar; he was Disney’s largest shareholder; and he was raising his own family (which he wanted to be as normal as possible), and all of this limited his time.
I’m sure Steve would have continued as long as possible at Apple, if it were not for the unfortunate cancer. I think Bill Gates decided that he could do more good, or enjoy himself more perhaps, by turning to philanthropy, and Bill’s fortune was so large and so vast that I think he wanted to have more years to think about that, than if he had kept running Microsoft and waited until he was in his 60s or 70s. I think Steve always loved to do what he was doing. He had a way of seeing what he thought people would want — even if they did not know they would want it — and then delivering it. Not every computer he created was an amazing success, but he had so many successes that he obviously had a gift
Steve was not an academic type but he had many interests and was curious about things. He was not a computer scientist and he didn’t pretend to be one. He understood what ought to be possible and he knew how to drive people to get what he wanted. I don’t think he was the easiest person in the world to work for. He could give great kudos one day, and the next day make you feel like crap. Some people could hang in there and wait for the next time they could be geniuses again in his eyes, and maybe others did not enjoy that and moved on.
I remember when Steve was at NeXT, and I was talking to him about working for him. We took a long walk, and one of the things that stuck with me was when he said, “You know, in every startup, in every entrepreneurial enterprise, there can be exactly one entrepreneur.” I knew what he meant. He didn’t mean that he didn’t want other people who had an entrepreneurial way of thinking. He meant there is one guy in charge, and that one person was Steve.
I don’t think that meant that he did not allow people any leeway — you can’t be doing everything and be involved in everything at all times. But he was the one who called the shots. And he made all the important creative decisions. In a way, that was amazing if you think about all the things that he had to understand and master in some way, whether it was material science or the limits of technology or what software can do.
Some of us who were very technically oriented, whenever we saw a new Apple product come out, immediately saw the compromises that had been made. Because there are always compromises, always good reasons. They are not stupid over there. But Steve was ultimately the one who was going to decide we’re going to put this in and not that in, it will do this but not that.
As most everyone knows, Steve Jobs was also the master at delivering the announcement of what was in the product. Unless you were able to disconnect yourself from his distortion field, Jobs delivered his announcement in a way that you never would think of the things that ought to be in that product until much later. Usually after you bought it.
#b#Ira Fuchs#/b# graduated from Columbia in 1969 with a bachelor’s in applied physics and in 1976 with a master’s in computer science and electrical engineering. In 1981 Fuchs co-founded BITNET, the first academic computer network to connect the United States to Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Israel, the USSR, and most of western Europe. He also was a co-inventor of LISTSERV, an electronic mailing list application.
From 1985 until 2000 Fuchs served as vice president for computing and information technology at Princeton University. From 1994 to 2000, he was the first chief scientist of JSTOR, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to archiving important scholarly journals.
From 2000 to 2010 he was vice president for research in information technology at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He is currently executive director of Next Generation Learning Challenges (www.nextgenlearning.org) at EDUCAUSE, which has offices in Washington, DC, and Boulder, CO. Thanks to the power of computing, he works primarily from his home in Princeton.