Steve Jobs' fierce reign and legacy

The Apple co-founder who has just resigned as CEO was a polarizing force who reshaped the tech industry several times

Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO from Apple today, after a remarkable career. (He will continue with Apple as chairman of the board.) Jobs is that rare person who truly has transformed an industry -- several times, in fact -- and in many ways changed the daily activities of people throughout the world. He is also a controversial man, reviled by many, loved by many, admired by many, and criticized by many.

My own experiences with the man and the company he ran covered that whole range. Whatever people think of him, I believe they can all agree he is fierce: fiercely loyal to his principles and to his friends and close colleagues, fiercely competitive, fierce in his ambitions, fiercely dismissive and belittling to those he does not respect or who he believes are in his way, fiercely stubborn, with a bulldog-like habit of not letting go but instead continuing to persevere for as long as it took (the iPad was a decade-long project, for example).

Famous for the Mac and iPhone, Jobs' influence has been much deeper than anyone else I can think of in the technology industry -- an industry with no shortage of larger-than-life figures who also have made big differences (good and bad), such as Larry Ellison, Philippe Kahn, Scott McNealy, Marc Benioff, Bill Gates, and Carly Fiorina.

Jobs changed the music industry with the iPod, the cellular phone industry with the iPhone, the movie industry with his Pixar Animation Studios films, and the computing industry with the original Mac and then again with Mac OS X and just last year with the iPad. He has been in the middle of doing the same transformation to the publishing industry with his iBooks and media subscription services, and with the software industry with his App Store. Many of the iconic products created under his leadership have become the models for everyone else, creating a demand for high quality, good design, and user-centric products. That's why when you think smartphone, you think iPhone; when you think tablet, you think iPad; when you think ease of use you think Mac OS X; when you think digital music you think iPod and iTunes; and when you think of family movies you think of "Toy Story" and the rest.

That's the public face of Jobs' accomplishments. The story of Jobs goes deeper, with some major low points along the way. His amazingly strong personality also shaped the personality of Apple, for both good and ill. It saw the Mac community through very dark times, and has roused a broader community in Apple's last decade of near-constant glory.

Jobs' hate-love relationship with the Mac

Today, most people have forgotten that the Mac was not really Jobs' invention. After pioneering the Apple I and II computers with co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs moved on to the Lisa project at Apple. The Mac was spearheaded by Jef Raskin, and Jobs actively worked against the Mac project to give his Lisa effort an edge. The pirate culture at Apple -- detailed in spot-on detail by InfoWorld columnist Robert X. Cringely in his classic history "Accidental Empires" -- was born of Jobs' decision to compete with the Mac project. After the Lisa flopped, Jobs switched sides and took over the Mac, becoming its champion and public face. That cemented his reputation though led to his forced exit a year later,

The pirate approach also created a dysfunctional culture at Apple that grew into frightening levels by the mid-1990s, nearly destroying the company. Product development was based on open warfare among engineering groups, resulting in inconsistent products and visions that confused customers and compromised the company's business model.

I joined Macworld magazine in 1991 as a features editor, hired as the resident PC expert by then chief editor Jerry Borrell, who thought the Mac community's insularity had become dangerous and needed a bridge to the rest of the world. (David Pogue, then a Macworld columnist and now New York Times' tech czar, referred to me as Mr. DOS Head in those early days, an example of how cultish the Mac community had become.)

The Jobs pirate culture nearly destroys Apple

At that time -- six years after Jobs' forced departure from Apple -- the Mac community was very much split between the old-time Mac cultists and the new breed of agnostic users (such as myself) who saw it as a great niche tool. Steve Jobs was greatly missed by the cultist crowd, and they closely followed his (failed) effort to reinvent networking computing with his NextStep operating system and Next Cube server and then his (successful) effort as co-founder of Pixar.

During the Next period, Jobs was at his most accessible, toning down his famous arrogance (though it never went away). When Pixar was acquired by Disney, Jobs very much disappeared from media circles. What he was doing was learning how to work in the shark-filled waters of the entertainment industry. He learned well, as years later he became a major Disney shareholder and used his influence there to push the music industry into digital music via iTunes, changing the very nature of music business. (The music industry still hates what happens, though at the time the music-sharing sites like Napster were killing its sales, and all its copy-protection schemes were easily defeated. So they did a deal with the devil who would at least keep them alive.)

But the iTunes deal happened after Jobs returned to Apple in 1996. In the mid-1990s, Jobs was largely absent from the Mac universe, and Apple's internal warfare intensified. During a succession of CEOs who tried to make Apple like every other PC maker -- John Sculley, Michael Spindler, and Gil Amelio -- the Apple engineers started to fight with management, not just each other. It became vicious. Sculley was forced out, the former Pepsi exec dismissed as more centered on image than substance. Spindler took over as CEO, after having worked through the ranks of Apple's European arm. He made the decision to drop the Motorola 680x0 line of processors in favor of IBM's then-new PowerPC, which gave Apple a new boost of enthusiasm among both the engineers and the user base.

But the war over the "PC-fication" of the Mac got worse under Spindler's regime, and he soon lost control. Apple brought in Amelio, a respected exec from National Semiconductor who tried to bring in adult supervision such as former IBM exec Ellen Hancock. Amelio authorized Motorola and the IBM-backed Power Computing to make the first Mac clones, a move that was meant to place the Mac crown jewel in hands other than Apple's, as Apple's warfare had hit a point where the company's very viability was in question. At the same time, the efforts to create a replacement OS for the Mac's System 8 were failing, leaving Apple without a long-term platform.

The engineers essentially closed ranks and shut Amelio out, making him and his lieutenants leaders in name only. Amelio then did something surprisingly canny: He turned to Jobs as an adviser, then bought Jobs' NextStep OS as the basis for a new Mac OS. Jobs's public return to Apple in early 1997 caused near-messianic waves of fervor and hope among the user community.

Jobs takes over and undoes the pirate culture he set in motion

Amelio's reward for bringing Jobs back was to lose his job in a coup that Jobs led six months later.

I remember those times vividly, as I was a leading proponent of the clone effort, given my fears that Apple would die and take the Mac with it. I reworked the Macworld Expo program for August 1997 to showcase the major clone makers in the keynote address -- a slot that had been historically reserved for Apple. We made the keynote a two-part affair: Macworld columist David Pogue (now at the New York Times) and I presented the first half of the opening keynote about the clones and gave Apple the second half.

During that spring period of preparation, Jobs had been moving to take over Apple. I didn't know that, but I did know that Jobs would do the Apple presentation at the Expo. And I knew he hated the clone idea passionately -- he had been complaining by phone to Macworld's CEO for much of the spring about it in his very direct way. In the hours before the presentation, all of us were in the same room getting ready to go on stage. Jobs very deliberately stayed at the opposite side of the room as I greeted people, with one IBM exec remarking on that fact and suggesting this was Jobs's way of making his displeasure over my views known.

Before the week was out, Jobs had taken over Apple and sealed a deal with his longtime business foe, Microsoft's then-CEO Bill Gates, for a cash infusion and a commitment to keeping Office on the Mac (that deal quieted the investor fears about Apple's survival while also giving Microsoft some cover for the antitrust issues the Justice Department was then investigating). Jobs also let Macworld's CEO know that my continued presence would cause Apple to damage Macworld's business, so I decamped to Computerworld as its West Coast bureau chief. Jobs also banned Apple employees from communicating with me and one of my key editors, Alliyson Bates.

As you can see, Jobs is an intense competitor.

A year or so later, Jobs released the candy-colored iMacs, which changed the idea that computers had to look like beige appliances. Derided as making computers into toys, the iMac line made computers accessible and human. Jobs had learned from Disney how important it was to have an emotional connection with your customers, and he applied that principle brilliantly to the Mac as part of his resurrection strategy.

People typically believe that Jobs does everything at Apple, but that's not the case. He has had an amazingly strong set of executives, to whom he delegates significant power and responsibility. The two that matter the most are Jonathan Ive, the company's chief designer, and Tim Cook, the man who makes Apple work like a precision machine in its manufacturing, retail, and online spheres. (Cook now succeeds Jobs as CEO at Apple.)

I had met Ive during Amelio's reign, as Apple was trying to convince the world that it remained a font of innovation despite the crappy products such as the Performa series it had been releasing. Quiet and unassuming, it was clear to me that Ive was a brilliant designer -- but one that Apple gave little authority to. When Jobs took over, he interviewed the existing Apple execs to see who should stay. He saw the brilliance that Ive had and gave him the freedom and burden of making elegant, innovative design and usability the fundamental quality of all future Apple products.

The result has been amazing, and my insider Apple contacts for years have told me how fiercely Jobs protected and supported Ive in those early years. Jobs also dismantled the pirate culture he helped set in motion in the early 1980s and brought an amazing discipline to Apple. He would bring some people to tears as he demolished what he considered to be substandard decisions and ideas. He would fire those who moved against him or his view of Apple's interests. He would instill fierce loyalty in others as he encouraged and supported the ones he believed were doing the right things. He would encourage opposing ideas -- as long as the opposition was constructive. And people who work directly with him -- if they succeeded, of course -- strongly admired and liked him.

Jobs kept his hand in the details and of course had the final say on the strategy. But as CEO he was no one-man band. As personally tied as Jobs was to Apple's products and success, he was no mere autocrat hurling diktats to the serfs. Instead, he recreated the Apple culture as one of an elite squad, à la "Mission Impossible" or the Navy SEALs.

An amazing legacy of fierce quality

I've related my own history with Jobs, which was hardly positive. But what Jobs has done for Apple, the technology and media industry at large, and for users everywhere is nothing short of amazing. In almost every case, Apple has set the bar for how things should be, so every competitor -- whether it is Windows, Android, or an app store -- is measured by the standards Apple, and Jobs, has set.

It takes a fierce person to do that -- and a fierce person to do it over and over again. For years, I was platform-agnostic, but when Windows Vista came out as an ugly mess, I switched to Mac OS X, and I can't imagine ever switching back. Despite my checkered history with Apple, I look at my technology set and see nearly all Apple products: a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPhone, a couple of iPods, and an Apple TV. I use Office because I have to, but iWork keeps getting better, and one day I'll be able to switch to that. Sure, there are great products from other companies, but none has the concentration of greatness that Apple does.

I didn't start as a Mac fan -- in fact, I was Macworld's resident "anti-Mac" initially. But the idea that Jobs insisted on -- that products work and work well -- is obviously the way things should be. We use technology to get stuff done, not to use technology for its own sake. After his technology-for-its-own-sake beginnings with the Apple I and II and Lisa, Jobs began to understand that principle and fiercely enforce it. We all have benefited from that fierce dedication.

We owe Steve Jobs huge credit for that, and for remaking Apple so that principle will endure. It's not yet clear why he resigned, but he's had serious cancer for several years. If that's what caused him to step down (his resignation letter obliquely suggests it), I can only wish him good health -- and say thanks.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.