Happy Birthday, Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is 54. For newcomers to the Mac and the growing list of Apple hardware and software platforms, I would offer a brief recollection of Steve Jobs about 10 years ago. I saw him in the lobby of a large San Francisco hotel in the afternoon following his 1999 Macworld Expo keynote address.

Since I'm not one of Steve Jobs' Facebook friends, I must rely on the accuracy of the Internet for his biographical information: that Tuesday is the Apple CEO's birthday. He is 54 years old.

Happy Birthday! I know that the entire Mac community hopes that we will celebrate many more of them.

For newcomers to the Mac and the growing list of Apple hardware and software platforms, I would offer a brief recollection of Steve Jobs about 10 years ago. I saw him in the lobby of a large San Francisco hotel in the afternoon following his 1999 Macworld Expo keynote address.

He was seated on a bench near some elevators, perhaps waiting for housekeeping to finish cleaning Apple's suite in the floors above. He was sitting alone and glowering, broadcasting a radioactive aura that looked ready to explode. Around him, standing well away from him in small groups, were his retinue of PR handlers and executives, all facing anywhere but towards Jobs.

Jobs must have thought that he should be talking to someone. But it seemed that all the king's flacks couldn't dig up an interview on that afternoon.

My thought at the time was that nobody — analysts, press and customers alike — was coming around to the idea of thinking differently (okay, "different") about the Macintosh, Apple or Steve Jobs himself. The campaign got going in 1998 and was in high swing at the Expo, which had many black-and-white banners several stories high hanging around the hall and in the Apple booth.

It wasn't that Apple wasn't trying. That week in his keynote address, Jobs introduced powerful new Macs and software. Its Power Mac G3 was the first with the code-name "Stumpy" minitower enclosure. The model provided a side-panel door that opened to give easy access to all the components inside. You didn't have to get out a screwdriver to open it up. It was a brilliant design, best in the industry, that was used for many years afterwards.

In addition, I remember that this was the machine that replaced SCSI with FireWire. It was a big step for usability and performance.

Jobs said iMac was selling well and about 10 percent of the sales were to former PC users. He said that 32 percent of iMac buyers were first-time computer users.

Along with the hardware was the announcement of Mac OS X Server, that would be based on NeXT's BSD Unix kernel. It was the first Apple product with a NeXT heritage.

Apple was on its fifth consecutive profitable quarter, which had come following several reorganizations and the loss of many product groups. In fact, Jobs at the time was still the iCEO, the "i" standing for interim.

Still, none of these successes provided Apple and the Mac (and Jobs) much respect.

Microsoft and other companies continued to hire away numbers of Apple programmers and product managers. Apple had a recruiting desk in its booth with a sign above it saying: "Work Different."

In the same week, Silicon Graphics announced its first lines of Windows NT workstations. The company was caving in to the common wisdom of the market and abandoning its MIPS RISC processor and Irix flavor of Unix, leaving Apple to carry the RISC banner with the PowerPC and looking more out of place with its Unix-based Mac OS X.

Jobs must have had some of this, or all of this, on his mind on his birthday in 1999. What a difference a decade can make.