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Steve Jobs: The industry-defining early years with Apple


Most of the focus on yesterday's announcement that Steve Jobs is resigning his CEO position and moving to the largely ceremonial job of Chairman of the Board was on the effect that the man has had on Apple since his return to the company in 1996. But a lot of people who have only recently jumped aboard the Apple bandwagon forget the tremendous impact he had on the early Apple. After all, he was one of the co-founders, and he was the man who had the vision to create a company to give birth to the first truly consumer-oriented personal computer.

In the beginning

Apple was created out of the friendship of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The two became friends in 1970, but it wasn't until 1975 when the two showed off a prototype of Wozniak's Apple I computer at the Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto, CA that Jobs began to think about actually selling a fully assembled computer as a consumer product. (The third Apple co-founder, Ronald Wayne, left the company shortly after it launched.)

By 1976, the Apple I became a fully-fledged product that the company sold for $666.66 ($500 cost plus a 33% markup). While it still required potential owners to supply their own keyboard, case, power supply, and monitor, it was light-years ahead of other computers like the MITS Altair that required assembly by users.

The followup product, the Apple II, was the first bona-fide Apple hit. Hitting the market on June 5, 1977, the Apple II fulfilled Jobs's dream of a personal computer that anyone could purchase, take out of the box, and use. Had it not been for Jobs pushing the idea of a truly consumer-based personal computer (and selling his Volkswagen van to help provide capital for the first run of Apple I computers), it's doubtful that the company would have ever gotten off the ground.

The Mac

Jobs's next triumph was the Mac. In the late 1970s, he realized that the mouse-driven graphical interface would drive the next revolution in personal computing. While Apple loved the idea and funded development of the Lisa (named after Jobs's first daughter), Jobs was driven off of the project in 1982. In typical Jobs fashion, he bounced back quickly and joined the Macintosh team.

The Mac is really the product that defined the young Steve Jobs. As with future products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, Jobs took personal pride in making sure that the shipping product was as perfect as possible. That perfection and an eye for design created a device that was very different from the bland IBM Personal Computers that were quickly finding acceptance in business.

Seeing Jobs introducing the Mac on January 24, 1984 was a foretaste of what we'd see throughout his tenure at Apple. His mixture of showmanship and enthusiasm about the product he had created with a team of geniuses shows, and it is infectious. You want to believe in the product as well, and the crowd at the introduction went wild.

Unfortunately, later that year Jobs lost a struggle with the Apple board of directors, and he resigned to start NeXT. That move was in itself a propitious change, as NeXT pointed the way to the UNIX-based Mac OS X operating system, the Internet and World Wide Web, and the development tools now used to create apps for both the Mac and iOS platforms.

The return to Apple

Twelve years later in 1996, Apple CEO Gil Amelio realized that the many attempts to replace the original Mac OS with a completely new platform were getting nowhere, so he convinced the board of directors to purchase NeXT and its Unix-based OS, which itself had been built around the Mach kernel developed at Carnegie Mellon. That brought Jobs back to Apple, and by 1997 he was back in the saddle as CEO of the company. (The fifteenth anniversary of the NeXT acquisition is coming up in December of 2011.)

Continuing with the streamlining of Apple that was begun by Amelio, Jobs cut the Newton platform, neutered Cyberdog, and pulled the plug on OpenDoc. To fill the void, Jobs directed the development of Mac OS X -- which of course thrives to this day -- and brought in designer Jony Ive to revitalize the product line with beautifully designed devices.

Since his return, Jobs has had his finger firmly on the pulse of the company. Criticized by many as being too controlling, his eye for design and passion for perfection have created a long series of popular new products -- the iPod, iPhone, and iPad -- as well as revitalizing the Mac. I love the following short video of Jobs just after the 2007 introduction of the iPhone. He's a guy on top of the world who realizes that he's just changed it for the better.

While his departure from the CEO position at Apple may be seen as a bad thing, Jobs has had fifteen years to build a strong team that knows how to "think different" and is in many ways stronger than the man himself. I personally have no doubt that Apple will continue to innovate and succeed without Steve Jobs as the day-to-day manager; in fact, we can see that it already has.

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