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The life and times of Steven Paul Jobs, Part One

From grade-school hellion to iMac redemption

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The iMac enters the matrix

Even before Michael Dell's dismissive comment, Jobs had already began taking decisive steps to remake the company he had cofounded.

In the summer of 1997 he swiftly terminated Apple's misguided operating system licensing program, which was pulling sales away from Cupertino without increasing the Mac operating system's market share.

First, he refused to extend the same licensing deals that clone makers had for System 7 to the new System 8, which was released on July 26. Then on August 30 he eliminated cloners' participation in the Mac OS Up-To-Date program, which provided low-cost operating system updates for purchasers of new Macs. And finally, on September 2 he announced that Apple had purchased the preeminent clone-making licensee, Power Computing, for $100 million in Apple stock.

To be sure, there were clone makers other than Power Computing – DayStar, Motorola, Pioneer, APS, MacTell, Akia, and MaxxBoxx – but they all soon got out of the business. UMAX lasted the longest, staying at the low end of the market, but finally gave up on May 27, 1998.

Power Computing anti-Intel ad from 1996

Power Computing took a decidedly more aggressive approach to branding than did Apple

Soon after the purchase of Power Computing – on September 16, to be exact – Jobs announced that he was now Apple's "interim CEO".

As interim top dog, Jobs quickly instituted what he referred to as his "loose lips sink ships" policy, named after those ubiquitous World War II posters that warned Americans to keep their mouths shut in case an enemy might be listening. Apple had previously allowed journalists access to engineers, and had preannounced its products to us ink-stained wretches under nondisclosure agreements. But upon Jobs' arrival the company clammed up – a policy that continues to this day.

In addition to killing the clone dragon and pulled up the drawbridge, Jobs looked inside the Cupertino castle and saw a disorganized morass of often duplicative and hardly category-leading products.

As Jobs explained it to the assembled developers at 1998's Worldwide Developers Conference, "What I found when I got here was a zillion and one products" – well, to be more accurate, there were 15 different Mac platforms, plus servers, monitors, scanners, and printers.

"And I started to ask people," he continued, "why would I recommend a 3400 over a 4400? Or when should somebody jump up to a 6500, but not a 7300? And after three weeks, I couldn't figure this out. And I figured if I can't figure it out working inside Apple with all these experts telling me in three weeks, how are customers ever going to figure this out?"

Jobs' solution was to drastically cut the number of platforms that Apple produced from 15 to four, which he described in a product matrix of consumer and pro platforms on the X axis and portable and desktop platforms on the Y axis.

That matrix had no place for either the hardware or software aspects of the Newton program. On February 27, 1998, Apple announced that it was ending all Newton development, which meant the end of Apple's two Newton-platform products of the time, the stylus-operated MessagePad 2100 and the keyboard-equipped eMate 300.

Apple's Newton OS–based eMate 300

Apple's Newton-with-a-keyboard was intended for the education market. Didn't happen

The Newton had been John Sculley's baby, and when asked if Jobs killed the Newton out of revenge for being maneuvered out of Apple in 1985, Sculley replied: "Probably. He won't talk to me, so I don't know."

The two "pro" boxes in Jobs' matrix were already filled by the Power Mac G3 and PowerBook G3 were introduced in November 1997. They, however, were outgrowths of Apple's older design language: the original Power Mac G3 was a traditional beige box, and the PowerBook G3 was essentially a refinement of previous PowerBooks.

It was the consumer desktop that Jobs introduced on May 6, 1998, that was the turning point in Apple's design thinking. Many have also argued that it was also the end of Apple's death spiral and the beginning of Jobs' meteoric ascent.

Apple's original Power Mac G3

Apple's last beige box: the Power Mac G3
(source: Mac-History.net – click to enlarge)

That consumer desktop was the iMac. While Jobs is widely credited for its creation, its basic design had been kicking around Apple for some time, designed by the man who since 1996 has been Apple's lead designer: Jonathan Ive.

Ive had been hired at Apple in 1992, but his design sense – he was a devotee of Braun designer Dieter Rams – hadn't been appreciated in Apple's corner offices. As a former colleague of Ive's told The Observer, "There is a rumour Apple had designed the iMac years earlier but the existing boss was not interested, so they put it away. When Jobs returned and asked what ideas they had, Jonathan brought it out and the rest is history."

Jobs is also often credited with having the foresight to add USB and drop the floppy drive from the iMac, but credit for those decisions should at least be shared by Jon Rubinstein, Apple's hardware-engineering lead who had left NeXT a few years before that company's acquisition by Apple, and whom Jobs introduced to Amelio and suggested he hire.

It was Rubenstein who managed the breakneck pace of the iMac's development that enabled it to make it to its May 1998 coming-out party. That event, not coincidentally, was held in the same Flint Center auditorium in Cupertino where the original Mac made its debut in 1984. Also not coincidentally, when Jobs introduced the iMac it gave the audience the same greeting, in the same script font, that the original Mac had 14 years earlier: "Hello" – but with the addition of "(again)".

One other person deserves mention: Ken Segall of Apple's ad firm TBWA\Chiat\Day, who gave the iMac its name. Segall told The Cult of Mac in 2009 that Jobs had suggested another name that Segall considered so bad it would "curdle your blood" – though he wouldn't divulge Jobs' suggestion. Jobs originally hated the name "iMac", Segall says, but eventually warmed to it.

Jobs certainly presented the iMac at its introduction with warmth and affection. After enumerating the shortcomings of contemporary consumer computers, he dismissed their design by saying "these things are uggggly. The iMac, on the other hand, was a whole new design ball game. The whole thing is translucent – you can see into it," Jobs enthused. "It's so cool!"

Jobs also touted the iMac's "coolest mouse on the planet" – an evaluation that many disagreed with – and the iMac's 360-degree design. "The back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys," Jobs said. "It looks like it's from another planet – and a good planet. A planet with better designers."

Bondi Blue Rev. A iMac

Jobs + Ive + Rubinstein + Segall = iMac (click to enlarge)

Inside its translucent Bondi-blue-and-white shell, the original iMac had decent specs for a consumer-level computer of its time: a 233MHz G3 processor with 0.5MB backside cache, 32MB RAM expandable to 128MB, 100Mbps Ethernet, 33Kbps modem, 4Mbps iRDA, 4GB hard drive, and a tray-loading 24x CD-ROM drive.

But what sold the iMac wasn't its specs, it was its looks and its plug-and-play simplicity. It can be argued that the iMac represented an inflection point in consumer-computer sales: prospective buyer no longer asked their computer-savvy friends to interpret megahertz and gigabytes for them, they simply saw what they liked and bought it.

On the consumer side, Jobs went on to follow that "Keep it simple, stupid" philosophy with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, and rode it all the way to the bank. On the day that the iMac was first introduced – three months before it shipped on August 15 – Apple's stock was selling for $7.58 per share. Hmmm... Let's check what it's going for today.

It seems that Jobs was onto something.

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