The questionable role of Steve Jobs

Filed under History, Steve Jobs;

When I was a teacher, I asked my 11th-grade students who founded what was then called Apple Computer Inc. “Steve Jobs!” they confidently replied. I prompted them, “Yes, he was one of two Steves. Who was the other?” I died a little bit inside at their blank stares, then showed them G4’s special on the Apple II to rectify the matter. (They were, surprisingly, impressed by Wozniak’s wizardry as demonstrated in that show.)

Sadly, it is not just the next generation whose reality has been distorted. Whatever Apple’s origin, Steve Jobs has attained a popular culture ranking greater than his counterpart and will go down in history as having had more impact on the company. But does that belief reflect historical truth?

Doubtless much of Apple’s success has been attributed to Jobs. Last month’s Juiced.GS cited Carmine Gallo’s book The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, which outlines seven principles Jobs has used to attain success:

  1. Do what you love. Think differently about your career.
  2. Put a dent in the universe. Think differently about your vision.
  3. Kickstart your brain. Think differently about how you think.
  4. Sell dreams, not products. Think differently about your customers.
  5. Say no to 1,000 things. Think differently about design.
  6. Create insanely great expectations. Think differently about your brand experience.
  7. Master the message. Think differently about your story.

Gallo’s book is not the first to define these concepts. The Cult of Mac recently interviewed John Sculley, CEO of Apple 1983–1993. In that lengthy transcript (8,321 words!), the former sugar water salesman affirms several of the above points, including #4:

[Jobs] always looked at things from the perspective of what was the user’s experience going to be? But unlike a lot of people in product marketing in those days, who would go out and do consumer testing, asking people, “What did they want?” Steve didn’t believe in that.

He said, “How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.” He believed that showing someone a calculator, for example, would not give them any indication as to where the computer was going to go because it was just too big a leap.

And #5:

What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do — but the things that you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist.

But are Jobs’ philosophies truly what drove Apple to success? In Susan Lammers’ 1986 book Programmers at Work, an interview with the late Jef Raskin, a former Apple employeee, offers a different perspective:

If Jobs would only take credit for what he really did for the industry, that would be more than enough. But he also insists on taking credit away from everyone else for what they did … He has not designed a single product. Woz designed the Apple II. Ken Rothmuller and others designed Lisa. My team and I designed the Macintosh. Wendell Sanders designed the Apple III. What did Jobs design? Nothing.

Andy Hertzfeld offers an opposing view of who can be considered the father of the Macintosh, but that computer is just one example. Mike Maginnis brings the above product line up to speed by amending it with the iPod, the design of which should be credited to companies PortalPlayer and Pixo. So what has Steve Jobs actually designed Apple Inc.? “Probably not as much as Jobs would like you to think,” Maginnis suggests.

But as far as our favorite computer is concerned, there is one story that most sources agree on — one quoted in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and retold in Sculley’s recent interview:

If you go back to the Apple II, Steve was the first one to put a computer into a plastic case, which was called ABS plastic in those days, and actually put the keyboard into the computer. It seems like a pretty simple idea today, looking back at it, but even at the time when he created the first Apple II, in 1977 — that was the beginning of the Jobs methodology. And it showed up in the Macintosh and showed up with his NeXT computer. And it showed up with the future Macs, the iMacs, the iPods and the iPhones.

Jobs may not be the design genius he’s made out to be, but his marketing genius is significant. Last month made 25 years since he was ousted from Apple; compare the decade without Jobs to the years since his return in 1996, and you’ll find the company has been revitalized and made significantly more profitable.

It was during Jobs’ absence from the company he founded that the last Apple II, the template for all that was to come from Apple Inc., rolled off the production line. He may have been responsible for the commercial success of the computer, but he cannot be directly blamed for its death. In the end, what else matters?

  1. Martin Haye says:

    For all that he’s been great for modern apple, the Mark Twain story I heard puts Jobs squarely to blame for the death of the Apple II. The head of the Mac division came in, slapped a IIgs article on Jobs’ desk and demanded the IIgs ROM 04 project be killed. Jobs said ok. Even if that story is apocryphal, fact is he was head of the company at the time, and the buck stopped with him.

  2. Martin, we’d need someone more versed in Apple history to verify that tale. But given that Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985, the ROM 00 IIGS didn’t ship until September 1986 (with the ROM 03 being released in August 1989), and Jobs didn’t return to Apple until 1997, I’m not sure when he could’ve had any influence over the Mark Twain.

  3. It would not be surprising if someone from the Mac division demanded of SCULLEY to have the IIGS ROM 04 project killed, considering that at the time the Mac was still struggling to gain headway, and a faster and color computer with the GUI interface of the Mac, and a large catalog of software was hard for the Mac to compete against. Whether or not the story discussing the decision to kill the IIGS will ever be made public, it was apparently a last-minute decision, at that fateful Apple User Group Satellite broadcast on 9/25/91. Hmmm. Next September will be the 20th anniversary of the death of the “Mark Twain” IIGS….

  4. Martin Haye says:

    Fascinating. I may have to reconsider my love/hate feelings toward Jobs and move them more in the love/love direction…

  5. …I still remember my IIGS days…and getting the Apple IIGS magazine…

    …and the big closeup picture of Sculley on it with a quote that said, “Apple will not abandon the IIGS”.

    …maybe a month after that, you saw Apple II products in the discount bin in software stores.

    Still a painful memory!

  6. What most people experience as a Mac was the finder and the rest of the user interface. Raskin was not at Apple during that phase of development. A lot of the Mac philosophy comes down to us from Raskin’s time but it is inaccurate to credit him with things that were concieved and executed after he left. I do not think Steve can be credited for designing the interface but he was the team’s leader during that part of the process. Leadership matters quite a lot.

  7. herb schulsinger says:

    Bill Atkinson was one of several people who visited the Xerox PARC labs and was shown the 8010 (commonly known as the Xerox ‘Star’). It was he, if I’m not mistaken, who developed for the Lisa, which later morphed into the Mac, an interface with moveable, resizeable, overlapping windows, menu bar, and other refinements that were absent from the Xerox Star interface. Jef Raskin, generally credited with being ‘the father’ of the Mac, and Steve Jobs also attended that demonstration of the Star. Raskin and Atkinson were software engineers, while Jobs’ experience lay more on the electronics side and I’m not sure what his contribution to the Mac actually was. Suffice to say, Jobs is a superb marketeer and innovator, and it was under his guidance that Apple blossomed into the powerhouse it is today. That said, however, had it not been for the ‘Woz,’ there probably would never have been an Apple. Too, Jobs had wanted a closed design on the Apple II — no slots, no connectivity — and if he had achieved that goal (thankfully, he didn’t), the members of the Homebrew Computer Club would have been less receptive of the Apple I, and Apple Computer, Inc. would have died aborning. This is my brief recollection of Apple’s history. Corrections/amendments are welcome.