Recalling a summer when Steve Jobs saved Apple and the Mac

The world is a lesser place without Steve Jobs. Here are a few recollections from a bygone summer in 1997 when he played the key role in shaping the Mac and Apple's history and perhaps the course of technology innovation.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Like so many others, I am so sorry to hear of the death of Steve Jobs. He was a very great man and technologist. I extend my condolences to his family and friends and colleagues. Every computer user in the world owes a great debt to Steve Jobs, even if they don't realize that they should thank him: for the very beginnings of personal computing with the Apple II; for bringing into mass markets the Mac with its graphical user interface and the mouse; and more recently, for the groundbreaking iPhone/iPad/iOS platform.

As a longtime Mac user and Apple industry observer — I built VisiCalc spreadsheets on the Apple II, have owned Macs from every generation since 1984, and in the 1990s worked my way to be Editor at MacWEEK, the Mac industry's trade publication — I would offer a few recollections from a bygone summer in 1997 when Steve Jobs played the key role in shaping Mac and Apple history.

One tough one was the decision to kill Apple's Mac OS licensing program.

In 1994, Apple decided to join a number of other OS vendors to support a common hardware platform based on the PowerPC RISC processor. (You can read more about this history in a piece I wrote a number of years ago at eWEEK.com.)

Apple signed up a number of licensees to make Mac clones and the introduction of early units were successful in the market. But the cloners and the Mac installed base were really looking forward to machines with the next generation of RISC goodness, the PowerPC G3 and G4 processor. I saw the demonstrations of the high-performance clones in the summer of 1997. Their prospects were excellent. And since the smaller cloner companies were fine with shipping way smaller volumes of machines than Apple, they could cannibalize the top of the market with the richest margins.

The common wisdom of the time was that licensing was the correct strategy for software companies. It was the accepted model. Not to Steve Jobs. He understood that for Apple to stay afloat and be able to afford its OS software transition, it would need to keep the G3 processor to itself. He drove the decision to kill the licensing strategy, despite the legal action and outrage by software developers and Mac VARs.

Over the rest of the year, Apple unraveled the licensing agreements. In November 1997, Apple released the PowerMac G3, followed in mid-1998 with the iMac G3 and PowerMac G3 (both of which were developed before Jobs returned to Apple). The machines were hits with the installed base. Apple survived thanks to a loyal installed base and good machines from Cupertino.

Check out: Stop the lies! The day that Microsoft 'saved' Apple

Another remarkable performance I witnessed was Jobs' "fireside chat" with angry Apple developers at the 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). This was a critical moment in Apple history. Microsoft was wooing away hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of longtime developers inside and outside the company. The trope running in the technology press for several years was that the Apple was a zombie company, walking dead.

At WWDC, developers were pitched that the future of the Mac OS would be found in Rhapsody, a set of APIs based on NeXT OpenStep that would run on PowerPC and Intel processors. Many familiar frameworks, some of which had been viewed as the future of the Mac for years, were to be scrapped. Developers and companies had spent hundreds of millions writing to these now-orphaned technologies.

I recall speaking around that time with a division head of a major Mac market software company, who said that an engineering vice president had screamed in a meeting that this company would never write to an Apple API again. Yikes!

How would Apple keep its developers in the fold?

Perhaps, it would start with some honest talk from the Apple founder who at the time was just a "adviser" with the company? Jobs walked out and took on the questions in a town-hall format. He was amazing, handling hecklers and fans alike, and there were more of the former than the latter in attendance.

His talk was blunt and tough and unapologetic about "putting down" APIs and software teams. He told one developer that he was sorry for being "one of the people who put a bullet in your technology."

Of course, he wasn't sorry at all. Jobs said that Apple needed to focus, and "focusing is about saying no."

He told the crowd that Apple had to get away from expensive, proprietary technologies. If most of the market — meaning the hated PC market — wasn't going to use a technology, "so why should Apple do it?" he asked at the time.

Developers stayed with the Mac and the shift to a Unix foundation, while painful and long, revived the Mac as a platform. At the iPhone 4S roll-out this week, Apple said the installed base is more than 60 million.

At the same 1997 fireside chat, Jobs revealed perhaps his most significant contributions to Apple: the focus towards customer-centric solutions.

One heckler yelled out that Jobs didn't have a clue to fixing Apple's problems, to which Jobs said that the heckler was probably right. No doubt, this was a lie, since Jobs had plenty of ideas that he was already cooking: getting rid of the current Apple executive team, killing the licensing program and more restructuring, aka "putting down" entire divisions.

But Jobs hammered back with a call for increased customer values.

"You've got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology — not the other way around. I've probably made this mistake more than anybody, and I've got the scar tissue to prove it," Jobs said.

Some 14 years later, this is still something that most technology companies don't get.


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