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Steve Jobs in a Box

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The truth is, we were right to doubt him. The truth is, he was lost. With NeXT, Jobs was extending a stiff middle finger to his myriad critics. They said that he was just a salesman, a slick-talking marketeer—so the NeXT cube would be the most technically advanced computer anyone had ever seen. The critics said that Jobs’s pride, the Mac, hadn’t conquered the world because big business rejected it—so NeXT would target corporations. He abandoned his consumer instincts in favor of a strategy that amounted to, I’ll show you. Recipe for disaster.

But in coming back to Apple, Jobs also returned to his instincts. The first thing he did was launch the Think Different ad campaign, featuring an array of iconic faces: John Lennon, Gandhi, Picasso, Muhammad Ali. The campaign was infinitely narcissistic—the main criterion for the selection of the subjects was that they were Jobs’s heroes—but no less brilliant for it. And, in orchestrating this marketing blitz, Jobs displayed a degree of chutzpa that was astonishing even by his standards. One night at a fund-raising dinner for Bill Clinton in San Francisco in 1997, I was told by an attendee, Jobs pulled the president aside and asked him for a favor: Would Clinton phone his friend Tom Hanks to persuade him to do voice-overs for the ads? (That Richard Dreyfuss ended up with the gig suggests that Clinton, this once, exercised a modicum of judgment.)

But Jobs’s instincts extended far beyond the realm of marketing. His penchant for simplicity caused him immediately to pare down Apple’s product offerings—the roster of which had swollen to include nearly a dozen computers, plus such devices as the handheld Newton. “I met with him shortly after he came back, and he went to the white board and said, ‘Look, our company’s too complicated,’” recalls Sky Dayton, the founder of EarthLink. “He said, ‘We’re going to do just four things,’ and then he drew this grid: laptop, desktop, consumer, business. That was it. And I was, like, ‘Beautiful!’”

When Jobs prepared to launch the first iMac, he was confronted by underlings who told him he was crazy: Every shred of market research had concluded that consumers wouldn’t buy an all-in-one computer. Jobs shot back, “I know what I want, and I know what they want.”

He was right about that, and also in his hunch that, for a growing number of customers, computers that looked as if they’d been hatched with MoMA in mind would be a tantalizing prospect. With the rise of the Web, the computer revolution was, for the first time, becoming genuinely personal. No longer were people using their machines just for serious stuff—documents, spreadsheets. They were using them for purposes that were purely recreational. E-mailing. IM-ing. Downloading purloined music. Devouring online porn. And once the PC entered the realm of fun, it became a province of fashion.

The Mac’s survival depended on more than design and innovation, however. It required something counterinstinctual from Jobs: the putting of old enmities aside. The most glaring example of his corporate statesmanship was the peace pact he signed with Microsoft, but equally important was the mending of fences with microprocessor giant Intel. The embitterment here ran back to a meeting between Jobs and Intel’s Andy Grove in 1977. In a negotiation, Jobs demanded that Grove give Apple, then just one year old, the same price that Intel reserved for its largest customers. Grove indignantly refused. “I thought they were going to be a niche player—I was condescending to him,” Grove tells me. “From then on, in his view, Intel was a piece of shit and nothing we did could change his mind.”

Until 2005, that is—when Apple announced that henceforth all of its computers would run on Intel chips. Today, Mac sales are growing three times faster than the PC market as a whole, a spurt that Jobs puts down primarily to Apple’s switch to Intel. That a dispute so petty, so personal, could fester inside of Jobs’s head for nearly 30 years says a great deal about him. But that he finally let it go says something, too.

The nascent rejuvenation of the Mac naturally brings joy to the hearts of Apple cultists (of which, let me state for the record, I am one). But any cultist claiming that the Mac’s revival is what’s behind the stratospheric ascent of Jobs and the company must be on drugs. The rocket fuel propelling that development has plainly been the iPod.

Launched in October 2001, the iPod was obviously, from the get-go, a wicked piece of gear. At the launch at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California—for which the invitations teased “Hint: It’s not a Mac”—Jobs deployed his best P.T. Barnum juju. “This amazing little device holds a thousand songs and fits in my pocket,” he said. “This is a major, major breakthrough.”


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