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The end of innocence at Apple

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


The end of innocence at Apple
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

Steve Jobs, barely into his 20s and as restless as the Monterrey surf, had just come back from an apple festival when he and his hacker friend Steve Wozniak went into business making a strange little device. It was an almost useless product. It had no obvious appeal except to the oddball members of a new club in the San Francisco Bay area who got together every now and then to talk about computers.

The year was 1976, when the only home computers were hacked-up piles of parts. A couple of companies were starting to sell kits to make your own computer, and the members of this group, the Homebrew Computer Club, had a lot to talk about, and, usually, very little to show.

The two friends made a perfect combination. Wozniak, known since childhood by the wizardlike nickname of "The Woz," was five years older than Jobs and did all the engineering of their new creation. He was a brilliant innovator. The Woz had built a home computer before. This one was clearly better, but the big difference wasn't the hardware. It certainly wasn't the software, because it had no software, not at the beginning.

The difference was Steve Jobs. A loner who never seemed to fit in, Jobs was quickly making a reputation as a tactless young man who always acted as if the rules were made for somebody else. But that is also what gave Jobs a vision that few others in the 20th century have shared. The rules were indeed made for somebody else, not for the skinny kid whose eyes glowed when lit by the fire inside.

The rules said big companies make computers. The rules said a few dozen giant computers would run everything. The rules said people wouldn't really want computers of their own. After all, what would you do with your own computer? It was clear there was no future for such a toy.

That was what the rules said. Jobs even took the Woz and his new creation to Hewlett-Packard and asked the big computer company if it wanted to make this new small computer. H-P said no. The two Steves knew they would have to manufacture the computer themselves. The rest of the story-the "factory" they set up in the garage of the house where Jobs lived with his parents, the cute name that was fresh in Jobs' mind after the apple harvest, the successful struggle to market their device as the world's first personal computer-has been told many times. It is the other side of the story that remained untold until now.

Frank Rose, a New York City journalist specializing in technology and culture, has sliced open the myth of Apple Computer in what may be the most significant book of the year. In "West of Eden—The End of Innocence at Apple Computer" (Viking, $19.95), Rose peels away the layers of misinformation that have shielded Apple from the start. Rose conducted hundreds of interviews and dug deeper than anyone has done before to show what was actually happening both in the early years, when Apple Computer made millionaires of all its top employees, and in the later years, when the company lost nearly all its sense of purpose and could have gone belly-up with any random downturn of the stock market.

Perhaps most importantly, "West of Eden" places the current-day mastermind of Apple Computer, chief executive John Sculley, in a light that is so unflattering that it seems shocking. Sculley was hired by Jobs to run Apple when the company got too big to manage, and the two of them became inseparable friends-the visionary kid and the experienced manager. But Sculley and Jobs were too different to stick together for more than a few years.

With a charisma that melted even the strongest opposition, Jobs had relied on the appeal of his vision of computers that could be used and enjoyed by anyone. The embodiment of that vision was the Macintosh, which Jobs created with a small design team off in a corner of the Apple compound in Cupertino, Calif. Officially, Apple's management put the company's future in two other models-the Apple III and the Lisa, which each turned out to be utter failures.

Jobs had no patience for the Apple II (which he thought had outlived his usefulness) or for the new Apple III, and he realized from the start that the Lisa was a disaster. When sales of the Apple III and the Lisa showed that the man with the vision saw more clearly than the executives who were running things, Jobs became a hero for the second time—first with the original Apple, and then with the Macintosh.

But mismanagement (which Jobs was as much to blame for as anyone else, since he rarely took time to consider the practicalities of mass production) brought the company to the edge of despair, and Jobs lost the backing of Apple's board of directors. In a showdown in which Jobs and his few supporters cried and Sculley and his backers on the board vacillated under the intensity of Jobs' personality, Jobs was kicked out and then was sued to try to keep him from taking what he knew with him.

The loss to Apple was much larger than the departure of the company's founder. It faltered as its vision faded. When Jobs walked out, Apple began turning into just another big computer company. Before Jobs left, the company had canceled its research into the project that Jobs had seen as the next Macintosh—a personal computer with an immense memory and racer-fast processing speed, which would be so easy to use that anyone who could push a mouse could be a programmer. Such a computer would be a boon to education. It was this goal that propelled him into the creation of his third project, appropriately called the Next computer.

It is now being manufactured and has been sold to universities around the world. The Next also is about to be sold to non-educational buyers, too. In the dust that had not yet settled when Sculley forced Jobs out, Apple's lawyers demanded that Jobs agree that whatever computer he came up with in his next venture would be so advanced that it could not end up being a competitor to the Macintosh. The lawyers may not have realized what they were asking, but Steve Jobs knew right away—and signed the stipulation.

How could a guy who could see so far resist such a temptation?


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