Late in 1989 I opened my email one morning and there was one from firstname.lastname@example.org 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.