Early in Apple Computer's history, employees became aware that working for Steve Jobs was quite unlike working for any other boss. Andy Hertzfield, one of Apple's very early hires, recalls his manager presenting a software schedule for the new Macintosh project that looked impossible. When Hertzfield queried the ridiculously short time frame, his boss d Tribble - looked sheepish.
"Well, it's Steve. Steve insists that we're shipping in early 1982 and won't accept answers to the contrary. The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek. Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he's not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules."
Hertzfield thought his superior was exaggerating, until he observed Jobs in action over the next few weeks.
To the technology world, the force of Steve Jobs has been anything but natural. In the business world of technology, he has presided over several companies that have brought style, elegance and creativity into computing. While Jobs has always been a smart businessman, his companies have appealed to the more individual and creative user. Apple challenged IBM in the 1980s with a stylish alternative to the clunky PC, launching it with the most famous superbowl television spot of all time: the '1984' ad (which almost didn't run because of boardroom politics). The company's fortunes waned after Jobs was pushed out by the board in 1985, rose again when he rejoined in 1997, and is now stronger than ever after one of the great business recoveries of all time.
Jobs' personal acquisition of Pixar from friend George Lucas for $10 million (just after leaving Apple) became worth $7 billion when the (by then Oscar-laden) animation house was bought by Disney in 2006. While away from Apple, Jobs founded NeXT, which although a financial failure, would eventually provide the foundation for the new Apple operating system. In the early 21st century, his vision for a simple digital music player, and the online service to keep it well fed, saw him take on the powerful recording industry and beat them at their own game.
And the reality distortion field has yet to fade. When Apple moved away from the PowerPC to Intel CPUs for its new models, Jobs seamlessly switched his allegiance and showed off benchmarks that proved Intel really was superior to the PowerPC. His preview of the iPhone to thousands of faithful followers at MacWorld 2007 was a masterpiece of presentation skills, combining important details of the product with amusing anecdotes of Apple's early history. The audience lapped it up, despite the fact that the product was not yet shipping.
* The Apple name: Jobs had worked at Atari and wanted a name that would appear before it in the telephone book. Apple was it.
Visions of greatness
The early days of Apple is a story of the two Steves: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The latter was an electronics genius who had known Jobs since 1971 through a mutual friend. 'Woz' had been attending meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, a counter-culture group in Silicon Valley of members who shared a passion for making their own computers, when Jobs convinced him to make his own computer and sell it.
After some fancy footwork with the purchase of the necessary parts, and by selling off some personal possessions for funding, the two Steves eventually produced 200 of the new machines - the Apple I. The Apple used an ordinary TV as a display and could load and store programs to tape at the then rapid transfer rate of 1 200 baud. But the next model, also designed from scratch by the inimitable Wozniak, would require a lot more money to produce. With the help of Mike Markuula, an angel investor, the three formed Apple Computer on April Fools Day 1976, thanks to a loan co-signed by him and some upfront cash.
In 1977, the Apple II was launched and quickly became a best-seller. In the US market, it was the machine that popularised home computing more than any other. The first ever spreadsheet - Dan Bricklin's VisiCalc - only ran on an Apple II initially. Apple would continue to refresh and update the line for many years, even as it developed new products. It would take until the 1990s for the Macintosh to outshine the Apple II installed base. Even today, the Apple II can be found in some schools - a remnant of the millions that dominated US education for much of the 1980s.
The jobless years
It was a turbulent 1985 for Apple. Steve Wozniak resigned from the company he helped put on the road, the Lisa model was seen to be a failure and discontinued even as the Apple IIe (for enhanced) was being introduced, and there was boardroom politics aplenty. John Sculley, former marketing guru at Pepsi who had joined Apple in 1983 as president and CEO, was authorised in early 1985 to strip Jobs of any operating roles in the wake of the Lisa failure. Jobs retaliated by trying to organise a boardroom coup, but failed. A few months later, he resigned to form NeXT, taking some key Apple employees with him. Apple sued NeXT, but dropped the suit several months later. Jobs remarked at the time that it seemed amusing that a $2 billion company would be scared of "six guys in blue jeans".
Although NeXT was ultimately to fail, mainly because the machines it produced were too expensive and way ahead of their time, Jobs' oversight there was not wasted. While Apple stumbled slowly and steadily towards irrelevance under three different CEOs, NeXT was refining an elegant operating system and application library that even today looks modern.
Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first ever web browser on a NeXT Station and game programming gurus ID Software used one to develop the PC smash hit Doom.
But by 1996, NeXT was in financial trouble. To stave off disaster, it managed to sell its OS to Apple, edging out BeOS. The move was a turning point for Jobs, who not only got back on the Apple board, but also brought the NeXT Step engineers with him. The following year, Gil Amelio, then CEO, was ousted by the board and Jobs took over as interim CEO. If anyone could do the job, it was thought he could. Apple's stock had been languishing for years, its Newton PDA was the stuff of cartoons and jokes, and Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system was rocking the corporate world. Jobs didn't brush off Microsoft; he embraced it. At the 1997 MacWorld keynote, Jobs crossed to a video link with Bill Gates - to the surprise and almost immediate vocal scorn of his audience. Jobs offered some olive branches and Microsoft provided a $150 million investment in Apple as well as its Office suite for the Mac for the next five years.
Meanwhile Jobs got busy. He purged all but the best projects from Apple and started work on a new operating system that borrowed heavily from NeXT. From 1998 to 2002, Apple became sexy again with its old founder in charge. The iMac, the iBook, the G4, the AirPort wireless networking hub and, finally, the new OS X operating system were all released during this period, turning the company from a 1980s also-ran into a force to be reckoned with. This period also saw the introduction of the iPod, now the most popular portable digital music player on the planet.
Two years later, Jobs opened the iTunes Music Store after negotiating with record companies to license their music online. But it was not without some hard selling. "When Apple approached these companies to license their music to distribute legally over the internet, they were extremely cautious and required Apple to protect their music from being illegally copied," wrote Jobs.
"Apple was able to negotiate landmark usage rights at the time, which included allowing users to play their DRM protected music on up to five computers and on an unlimited number of iPods. Obtaining such rights from the music companies was unprecedented at the time, and even today is unmatched by most other digital music services."
Keeping the faith
In 2008, Apple's future looks brighter than ever. At the turn of the century, the average office worker had a Windows PC with Office and a business application or two on the desk. But today's world of flexible media, social networking, personal publishing, mobility and secure anytime internet connectivity has suited Apple more than it has Microsoft. iTunes dominates the paid-for digital music industry and the iPhone has made a promising start on the mobile space.
Apple has been far more aggressive with its marketing, mocking Windows (and Windows users) endlessly in the famous "switch" campaign. Apple still doesn't license its operating system to clone manufacturers as it did in the Jobless years, but advanced virtualisation products have made the higher-end Apples a popular workstation for running operating systems other than the latest incarnation of OS X - and at the same time, if you wish.
Jobs continues to push his employees harder, in the hope that reality can be distorted again, perhaps just long enough for the next great product unveiling.