in Computers, History, Mac

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

This was my first computer:

Vintage 1985 "Fat Mac"

The 512 kB “Fat Mac.” With an ImageWriter, Microsoft Word and Multiplan (the predecessor of Excel), and MacPascal, it set me back about $2,500. That was 1985 money, so it would be somewhere around $5,000 today.)

I was living in Albuquerque and my roommate, who drank deep of the Kool-ade, had been so affected by Ridley Scott’s 1984 “Big Brother” commercial that he ran out and bought one of the original 128 kB Macs. (If I recall, he bought some Apple stock too. I wish I’d done that when I bought my second Mac, an iBook, in 2003.)

Anyway, a couple of years later, I was working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and Steve Jobs wasn’t working at Apple any more. He came to Murray Hill to give a presentation of the NeXT computer. I didn’t work at Murray Hill — that was the real Bell Labs, where they got Nobel Prizes in Astrophysics and worked on slug brains. I just worked for AT&T’s R&D unit. But I got to see the presentation way down in South Jersey via the magic of teleconferencing.

By today’s standards, NeXT mail wasn’t all that hot: it was basically email with MIME attachments. But I don’t think he was trying to sell Unix workstations to Bell Labs. (Who would be stupid enough to give up a 3B2 with a BLT running Plan 9 for a mere NeXT box? Ahem. Although, to this day, I’m not personally convinced that email improved when it grew to include anything beyond ASCII text.)

What Steve was doing, I think, was giving AT&T some (desperately-needed) business advice. I admire his chutzpah: a kid in his 30’s, who’d just been sacked by his board, telling AT&T how to do business. But that’s what he was doing.

He was telling them that AT&T Mail was a disaster, particularly compared to what he was selling. But more than that, he was telling them to stick to their core competency. Instead of chasing him (or ignoring him and Inventing-It-Here, as Bell Labs was, ahem, wont to do), he said that AT&T should sell him connectivity. Just give him pipes to move his bits around, that’s what he wanted.

People talk about Steve’s “reality distortion field.” But that day, nobody was buying what he was selling.

That’s a hard message to sell to companies like AT&T. There’s some weird virus that infects marketing people at telecoms that makes them think it’s possible to add value to every bit that passes through their network. Indeed, that it’s not only possible, but their company is also capable of doing it!

Yes, yes, it’s a preposterous notion, but nevertheless, telecom marketers are all infected with it. Twenty-five years later, they still have it. They just can’t stand the idea of simply doing their core business well. They’re terrified of becoming a commodity.

Steve Jobs wasn’t worried about becoming commoditized. None of the businesses he built into category killers are commodities. Pixar is head and shoulders above everyone else in the business. The Mac stands out and commands a price premium in a world of commodity computers. Ditto the iPod, the iPhone, and lately the iPad.

Business is infected with the opposite approach. One of my managers at Bell Labs told me to quit improving a piece of software this way: “You’re polishing a turd.” Steve Jobs knew that you couldn’t make a great company by shipping turds, so he kept polishing products until there wasn’t anything turdlike about them.

Good for him. It will be interesting to see if anyone learns the lesson.

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