Thursday, 6 October 2011

A farewell to Jobs

It's very sad news that Steve Jobs has died. There will be plenty of pieces posted saying how wonderful he was, how visionary and how unique. And that's fine. He did some amazing things, and in the last few years has transformed Apple from a quirky personal computer manufacturer into the ultimate designer of personal electronic accessories. But I want to consider one point that is unlikely to be brought up in the eulogies that rightly will follow his death. How much he owed Apple's current success to John Sculley.

In 1985 - just one year after the Mac was launched - Jobs was forced out of Apple, as the company headed for crisis. The man behind this was Sculley, brought in from Pepsi to make Apple a more commercial operation. At the time Jobs was pushing Apple towards producing high end UNIX technical workstations. He would set up the not-particularly-successful NEXT computer company to produce the machine he thought Apple should be making. (The only time I've ever seen Jobs do his black turtleneck spiel on stage was at the launch of NEXT in the UK.) NEXT wasn't a total flop, but it wasn't a burning success either, and it was when the company was bought by Apple that Jobs came back to the fold in 1996.

Under Sculley, Apple was to produce one product and one vision that for me are absolutely the seeds of the iPhone and the iPad. Sculley's pet product was the Newton, a touchscreen personal digital assistant. It had problems, particularly with its text recognition, but it was a truly interesting product. Even better, though, was the 1987 concept video, Knowledge Navigator. This, without doubt, set the direction that would eventually produce the iPad. At the time I was blown away - and I still think the concept video is great (see below).

Now I suspect this period is going to be almost airbrushed out of Apple's history, but it's crucial. The really innovative ideas came when Jobs wasn't there, though I don't want to underplay the vast contribution he made in adding the detail and crucially the design orientation that made iPhone and iPad what they are today. I very much want to celebrate Steve Jobs' wonderful work in the history of ICT - but lets not forget the roots of that work either.

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