1996: the year of the comeback

For various reasons I've been thinking a lot about Steve Jobs lately. In particular I've been thinking about the eulogising of him as an industrialist alongside Ford, an inventor alongside Edison, a creative genius alongside Da Vinci. It occurs to me that it wasn't always that way.

In his book Walter Isaacson recounts how shortly after Jobs's sacking from Apple the then-President of the USA, Ronald Reagan, held a dinner for 500 top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Steve wasn't invited. 26 years ago, Steve Jobs wasn't considered one of the top 500 people in Silicon Valley with whom the President ought to rub shoulders. And that hurt him deeply.

But when Barack Obama invited him to a far more select dinner, he held out on accepting because the invitation hadn't come directly from the President. Even after he accepted, he fussed about the menu and almost backed out when he learned there were going to be others there.

You might think after the Reagan snub that he'd have been enthusiastic to find Presidential acceptance later in his career, but no. His stature had changed dramatically, and he knew it. Indeed he wanted Barack Obama to know exactly which one of them held the upper hand.

26 years ago Steve Jobs had already been the wunderkind who founded Apple, who virtually created the personal computer industry (to a point) and who had brought the world the revolutionary Macintosh. All of that was behind him, but no invite. No Edison, no Ford, no Da Vinci.

I mention this because I think some folks reading this might not remember what it was like in 1996 when Apple bought NeXT. I think in retrospect it's imagined as a kind of thunderous charge on mighty stallions with trumpets and cannons and whatnot. It wasn't. I was there. I remember.

What you need to recall is that at the time NeXT was essentially a vanity venture that Apple picked up for what would be considerd pocket change by the scale of just about any corporate takeover ever, and Pixar — while well-loved — had not yet gone public so no-one really knew how much it was worth. Steve Jobs was basically the guy in charge of a bunch of toys.

Apple was a bigger thing even then than either of those companies, and it looked for all the world unsalvageable. The guy who made the NeXT Cube and Toy Story? He's gonna turn it around somehow? I don't think so.

Well, I didn't think so. And neither did a lot of people. The ousting of Gil Amelio was the catalyst (among a number of other factors, but it was the last straw) that saw Macworld and MacUser merge into one magazine. Apple's dumped another CEO — they're gone. That was the thinking. Honestly. I worked for Macworld at the time, so I know these things.

Let me give you another little bit of context, from my own perspective. in 1995 The Beatles released Anthology. The rarities and alternate takes and stuff were all well and good, but the big thing was Paul, George and Ringo all working together again to "finish" two unfinished John Lennon songs.

I may have mentioned over the years that I'm a bit of a Beatles fan. I don't make a big thing about it, but there it is.

I was beside myself with anticipation. I was, for a short time at least as we all knew it was a one-off thing, going to live in a world where The Beatles were a current group. I was going to hear a new Beatles song on the day it was released. This was going to be huge.

I don't know if you will recall "Free As A Bird". It was, you know, OK. Had a cool video. But I was hoping for a classic, a world-changer, a meisterwerke. It was, you know, OK. "Real Love", the second single from that project, was much better, but Lennon had also finished it much more, so there was less for the 1995 Beatles — The Threetles as fans called them — to do.

Anyway, the big Beatles comeback was something of a disappointment for me. So by the end of 1996, when Steve Jobs came back to Apple, I was primed for disappointment.

I went to the Worldwide Developer Conference in 1997, at which Jobs gave his first "real" public presentation as an Apple employee again. It wasn't part of the Conference, it was a side session — "A Fireside Chat With Steve Jobs". There were microphones, so developers could ask him questions and he'd chat. It was incredibly informal, and rightly so, given Jobs at the time had no formal role at Apple.

You can watch it on YouTube, of course — these days everything is permanently accessible — but at the time it was pretty cool to be there in the room with him. I didn't ask any questions, naturally, but a few people did. Including one fellow who gave Jobs a withering put-down about "what have you personally done for the past seven years". It was harsh.

Steve Jobs was respected by the people in that room, but he was not revered. To his credit he took the barbs well and responded respectfully. I doubt very much that the Steve Jobs who nearly snubbed Obama would have done the same.

Anyway, my point is that 25 years ago Jobs wasn't revered, and even 14 years ago at the start of his tenure as Apple CEO he wasn't treated with anything like the awe that he later commanded.

He turned Apple around. He took a business that was as dead as they get and turned it into one of the biggest companies on earth, with unprecedented reach and influence. He ushered into being some amazing devices and services that radically altered the way people buy and handle media content.

All of that was since 1998 though. Really, since 2001 and the iPod, since the iMac was cool and all but didn't really change anything. So the reverence with which Steve Jobs was thought about at the time of his death was based, really, on ten years' work.

It was good work, of course, and it's made people go back and re-evaluate what he'd done before. Retrospectively, Apple was insane to have forced him out. The NeXT Cube was amazing and ahead of its time, and did you know Tim Berners-Lee invented the web on one? Gil Amelio was an incompetent lunatic who was driving Apple into the dirt and thank goodness Steve, the Greatest CEO Of All Time, was there. History is often improved when you look at it through the lens of what came after.

Then again, the reverence with which The Beatles are treated — with which no less a personage than Steve Jobs himself treated them — is based on only eight years' work.

But Steve's comeback was better.

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