Late in 1989 I opened my email one morning and there was one from sjobs@next.com saying “come see us.” So I went and spent the day and failed to make a sale, but so did Mr. Jobs.

Back Story · What happened was, I’d been working on the New Oxford English Dictionary Project at the University of Waterloo, and we’d built some pretty impressive tools for text transformation and search and display. We were in the process of rolling out our company, which lives on today: Open Text.

I’d gotten to know Michael Hawley, then a grad student at the MIT Media Lab, and Mike was friends with Steve Jobs; they rode bikes together in the California hills and he’d been consulting for NeXT. The NeXT systems shipped with a bunch of cool smart-content apps including (I seem to recall) the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a nifty dictionary.

They had really slick user interfaces that Mike Hawley had worked on, but the actual search technology was pretty lame. So I wrote Mike saying “You guys oughta take a look at our stuff.” The next morning, I had email from Steve.

The Day at NeXT · So my partner Gaston Gonnet and I flew out and spent the day. We had three sessions with Steve; in between, Mike and I got our software sort of running on one of the cubes.

Our idea was that we were gonna sell NeXT the exclusive rights to use our software for a couple hundred grand, which we’d use to launch our company. His idea was that he was going to hire us to fix up NeXT’s text-wrangling tech.

We both struck out. Toward the end of the day, he gave a variation on the famous John Sculley speech: “Look, you can found your company and you’ll sweat and strain and starve and go through hard times and quite likely not make it for years and years, or you can come to work with us and change the world!”

He did that thing he does with his eyes, and I couldn’t help but think of Kaa: “Trust in meee, just in meee...” I have to say that in those days, still with all his hair and a youthful face, the guy totally dripped charisma and magnetism.

He was right of course. We struggled and starved and while there was a big flashy IPO, we’d been raped by the VCs along the way and got crumbs. Well, enough crumbs to change my life and take care of my real-estate needs, but points to him for prescience. I notice the same risks hadn’t stopped him starting his own company though.

Regrets · At one point toward the end of the day he asked me “So, what do you think of the box?” I bullshitted because I was trying to make a sale, and said it was great. I wish I’d said the truth, which was that it was slow and overpriced and had horrible I/O; the DEC Ultrix box I was using was an immensely better product. Wouldn’t have changed anything but I do regret it.

His Track Record · I think I’m alone in the universe in loathing Steve’s keynote style, which feels to me like preening arrogance. The computers and music players and mobile phones have been great, but I think that in history’s rear-view, his biggest achievement will be having ripped music retailing out of the labels’ hands, and mobile software out of the telephone companies’. We’ll see.

Apple Post-Jobs · I’m irritated at the prattling pundits prognosticating Apple’s future, most of them saying “Everything’s just fine, Tim Cook he da man.” Jeepers, the essential point about business is that you never know how the story’s going to end.

Mr. Cook sent an email around to everyone saying Apple wouldn’t change. That seems a little weird to me; I seem to remember that not too many years ago Apple was a computer company that didn’t do music. Isn’t change at the center of their success?

Right now Apple is firing on all cylinders: design, operations, and marketing. Their R&D budget, as a proportion of top line, is ludicrously small even as they crank out world-beating products. This kind of harmonic convergence doesn’t happen very often in the world of business, and I’ve never heard of any company sustaining it for more than a generation or two of management.

I really don’t know how it’s going to play out. But then, neither does anyone else. I really hope they go on making great computers for me to use, and great mobile devices to compete against.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Paul Richardson (Aug 25 2011, at 22:15)

Ahh, the faster Ultrix box, was that perhaps the mips 2k/3K powered box aka pmax. I worked for DEC up until 89, then onto Mips (R6K) and Next from 91 to 93. It was a shame, mips tried to get Steve to use the 2K or subsequently the 3K. That would have been a hell of a machine....

I found Apple during my tenure frustrating, mostly because the cancelled my project (Spindler era)

Can you imagine if Apple had research like either heyday era PARC, DecSRC or DecWRL, Ask Alan Eustace about decwrl. Probably one of the greatest pure research groups no one ever heard of...

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From: Ian McKellar (Aug 25 2011, at 22:48)

For what it's worth, I hated his keynote style too. They just felt like infomercials. He always seemed like too smart of a guy to be playing the same game as Billy Mays and Vince Offer, but that's how it always sounded to me.

I kept expecting his "one more thing" to be steak knives.

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From: John Cowan (Aug 25 2011, at 23:23)

I've never heard a keynote style I didn't more or less despise, except Tommie Usdin's.

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From: Barton Fink (Aug 26 2011, at 03:52)

If your going to talk budgets, Apple has always been more like Pepsi or General Mills, in that it spends way more on marketing than anything else. Sine most of the product they sell is copied, they are primarily an advertising driven commodity.

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From: Engineer (Aug 26 2011, at 04:02)

Dude, while steve may not be dead, this article sounds a lot like pissing on someone's grave.

You come off as a total douche.

Your inability to appreciate the value Apple ads to the world does explain a lot about why you work for google, and why google can't manage to add any real value.

And no, selling advertising isn't exactly improving the human condition, nor is ripping off the work of an innovative company and then crying "patents are unfair!" when caught with your hand in the cookie jar. But then, I'm just a mindless zombie who buys things because steve "did that thing with his eyes". It couldn't be because Apple's seemingly the only company in the valley that gives a damn enough to bother innovating and providing quality products and support.

When google does that-- hell, when google stops the nosedive google search results are taking in quality-- then you can piss on Steve Jobs.

Until then, you're just a douche who hasn't made a dent in the universe. (Same could be said about me, but I'm not posting douchy articles about a guy who just resigned due to health reasons.)

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From: ChuckO (Aug 26 2011, at 07:38)

"Mr. Cook sent an email around to everyone saying Apple wouldn’t change."

This paragraph ruins the post for me. I would have given you the benefit of a doubt about the negative stuff you had to say about Next and the keynotes but this proves to me you harbor some anger and bitterness.

It's pretty obvious what Cook is saying is Apple won't change from being the company that changes things.

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From: DJ (Aug 26 2011, at 09:10)

Geez, I have a lot of respect for you, but this is uncharasteristically bitter post. It comes across as petulant and bitter.

Why do you wait until this guy is taking a sick leave to nitpick on your personal hangups? You're entitled to your opinions, and the right to express the publicly, but it comes across as poor taste given the circumstances.

And frankly, your reference to Tim Cook's assertion that "nothing will change," being incompatible with the nature of the company reads as willful misinterpretation of what seems obvioius (i.e., nothing changing means they will continue to change).

I'm sure you can express these ideas and experiences without sounding so bitter.

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From: John Wilson (Aug 26 2011, at 09:40)

I've only sat through one Jobs keynote and that was at javaOne in 2000. I have to agree with you it was terrible. I didn't believe a word he said.

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From: Ted Wood (Aug 26 2011, at 10:04)

Tim, I didn't read your whole post. One point caught my attention - the mention of "Apple not changing". I see you've already been corrected on this by other readers. As they said, Tim was addressing the passion and drive that Apple has... its core values. That's what's not going to change. It's product line will definitely change.

Now I may go read the whole post, but the comments somewhat turned me off from doing that.

(I'm an avid follower of your posts)

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From: Paul Huff (Aug 26 2011, at 10:12)

For the record, I didn't think this came off as sounding bitter at all... :)

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From: George (Aug 26 2011, at 10:13)

I wouldn't have commented except to say that I don't see what the two previous commenters are upset about. That you don't like the keynotes? That you think Apple doesn't spend much on R&D? That you think the future is not obvious?

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From: PB (Aug 26 2011, at 10:51)

I don't think Steve would have any real issue with what Tim's said.

Look at some of the comments of other people (many "old timers") who actually know or have known Steve and interacted with him. They respect what he's accomplished -- a lot -- but they're also wise, or down to earth -- or jaded enough, by life overall and not necessarily Steve -- to treat him as a real person.

For my part, I found too much "I" (first person, singular and plural) in Cook's memo. I'm no Steve expert, but as I mentioned elsewhere, my impression is that when Steve uses "I", it's in the course of making a specific point.

Love him or hate him, Steve's been one of the most effective, capable people to rise to such celebrity in recent memory. And I don't think anyone who really knows him is putting him in the box -- or syncing him to that new, giant data center -- just yet.

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From: Ram (Aug 26 2011, at 16:35)

The Random Relative Nobody's Guide to Blogging about Steve Jobs’ Resignation Like a Tech Pundit:

1. Provide your unique, astute and comprehensive assessment of the (in)significance of some aspect of his life work. Repeat as necessary.

2. Breathlessly tell the story about how you met him that one time.

Can't wait until these unimaginative bandwagoneers write his eulogy! That'll be fun reading!

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From: Andy Lee (Aug 26 2011, at 19:29)

I don't know if "bitter" is the word for the tone I perceive in this article, but two things irk me.

(1) The thing others have mentioned about Apple not changing. Way to miss the point *and* be logically inconsistent.

(2) The assertion that most writers are saying "Tim Cook he da man". What does that even mean and who the heck as Bray been reading? I have seen nothing like that in letter or spirit. What I have seen is sober analysis of Cook's strengths, track record, and reputation, and acknowledgment that he can't be all things and he isn't Steve.

Bray makes a fair point that nobody can see the future. But he undermines himself with this shoddy thinking.

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From: Anton McConville (Aug 26 2011, at 20:29)

You have cool stories, and I think you have made a dent in the universe too, Tim. Your blog really makes a lovely story/lesson for your own children, and a great document of a life well lived.

There's no question that Apple has really, significantly changed how we listen to music and what we do with mobile computing - but I'd argue that it made those changes though hardware AND software, and really an uncompromising standard in choice of hardware components and usability of software.

I think that the uncompromising part seemed to come from the top. I think that Steve Jobs may have loved what he did, was very driven, and learned brilliantly from his mistakes the first time around.

While he pushed us along, I wonder what the wider personal goal for Steve Jobs was, though. Was it to just to make billions? Was it to progress our use of technology? Was it to raise our own standards? Has it changed our standard of living? Has it made life easier across the digital ( and economic ) divide?

I see the salesman in his keynotes too - but, I think the blades on his steak-knives rarely dull. I think there is quality in what he sells. It is still a hard sell.

He is/was remarkable, and Apple's products are amazing. It would have been interesting to see him tackle some global problems as well as business ones, I think.

I wish the best for him, in his new role and for his future.

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From: Richard Wills (Aug 27 2011, at 06:50)

What has been annoying me about all the ponderous commentary from overpaid pundits is the term "Steve Jobs is retiring!! Apple is Doomed!!!"

No, he has merely move into a larger office.

Smartly, he realizes that the panickmongers would get all fuss & feathers, the day he actually dies. So he decided to control the inevitable panic by this shift in "job" functions.

The Wall Street casino does not consist of bulls & bears. Instead all those speculators and the brokers who feast on the commissions generated by constant buying & selling of alleged investments, are a flock of chickens!

When a shadow floats across their pen or a breeze rustles a piece of paper against the fence, they panic and rush heedlessly around as if their heads had already been cut off!

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From: Eddie Visc (Aug 27 2011, at 22:28)

> we’d been raped by the VCs along the way and got crumbs

In those days I suppose that it was hard to raise money and so there were sour grapes about how "money people" would beat up on entrepreneurs, but perhaps your founders team wasn't all that business savvy? Steve sure knew how to raise money, remember some of NeXT's investors like Ross Perot and Canon?

Regarding who will be remembered for what … competition in the mobile smartphone space going forward, with Google acquiring Motorola (patents aside), all indications are that the Larry has some Apple envy. Is Google going to finally make their own Nexus? Will the NeXT Nexus be open and free-to-be-you-and-me? Or will it be like the Nexus S, where Google really calls the shots for example by disallowing T-Mobile USA from providing their OTA proprietary Wi-Fi calling (UMA) Android app so the Nexus S becomes useless in high rises where GSM signal is unstable? You better not root that Nexus S, 'cause its not really open source and free to do with as you please despite what all the lovely rhetoric in the Google 10Qs of "virtuous circles" and "don't be evil" (wink wink).

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From: Thomas (Aug 30 2011, at 15:37)

Oh, Tim. I only swing by every now and then but today I just have to leave a comment. While I do not think at all that the post sounds bitter like previous posters said, it sure is the worst one I have read on this site. What a random mix-up of "what I always wanted to say about Steve Jobs"-crap.

In one word: pathetic.

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From: len (Sep 13 2011, at 03:58)

It's reassuring to see the hero worship in Silly Valley is in full flame.

Even at a distance, even without meeting Jobs, it's easy to see what Tim wrote is mostly dead on. But the man is ill and it isn't worth the ink to critique him personally. He has friends for that.

As for the culture he inspired, that's a different critique.

No company in the history of computers did more to create a walled garden around itself while taking and profiting by the ideas of others. Few companies have treated the intellectual property of its customers and competitors with as much arrogance. And none have so successfully created an image of benign innovation while destroying values of open systems and transparency.

Has it worked? It's stock owners say it has. Is it quite possibly the single best condemnation of the values of open source and inter company cooperation extant? It is. If this is success, get out your burglar tools, pay off the lawyers, and let the beatings recommence.

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From: Jon (Sep 28 2011, at 19:21)

Nice post. I enjoyed your honest recollections. It contributes to a fuller picture of and appreciation for history.

It's unfortunate that you can't be honest without some people tearing into you for it. I hope you aren't dissuaded by people like that.

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