By Darren Johnson
You may have avoided the movie “Jobs,” starring Ashton Kutcher as the recently passed Apple co-founder, because it has gotten mostly weak reviews. It is now on Netflix.
But, as someone who knows a good deal about early Apple history, I can say this film seems to capture what Steve Jobs’ value was to the company.
While some people say he was a great “inventor,” I’d contend he really didn’t invent anything. Yet, he was able to spot good ideas, and rally people to perfect those ideas and market them in a big way. The film captures this magic.
And nowadays with virtual reality and machines and people trained like machines doing the nitty gritty of creating chips and circuits and the artistic people creating the look, feel and interface, maybe an “idea guy” like Jobs is the one to bring it all together. His vision — and access to tremendous resources — did, in a way, “invent” something like an iPhone. He made the commands that made it happen. He looked at the prototypes, a combination of engineering and artistic taste, and had final say on what would go to market.
Being an “inventor” is a lot less tangible than it was a hundred or so years ago, when someone like an Edison literally could invent a light bulb. The engineer did not invent the iPhone. The artist did not invent the iPhone. The person who hired and understood both invented the iPhone. The movie mostly focuses on the early days of Apple, though, and that’s the era I used to write a good deal about. I knew the machines from the early days were anything but the effortless devices we have today. And even Apple’s ideas were not original back then. Jobs, the marketer, and his buddy Steve Wozniak, the engineer, built the original Apple Computer as a hobbyist kit from cheap parts held together by wood and screws and glue. It didn’t even have a monitor. It was hardly a computer, but sold enough units to geeks for them to start a successful line — the Apple II. The Apple II ran like those computers you see in old 1980s movies like “War Games” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” There were no graphics. No point and click mouse. Commands were typed out. There was no saving to a quiet hard drive. Saving seemed physical with a loud clank and whirr of a 5.25” floppy diskette. Printing was even louder to a dot-matrix machine. The original monitors had only one color, usually green. Monitors were so expensive, many people hooked up their computers to TV sets via an RF switch for display. Modems made loud noises. Everything made noise. The Apple was a machine and behaved like one, and a user needed to know how it worked inside out to get it to run; just like how really old-timers you may meet mostly all seem to know how to fix cars because cars were unreliable back when, people who used computers in the 1970s and ‘80s know how to fix them inside out to this day. There was no Help Desk. Jobs wanted better. He wanted to create computers that powered on simply and quietly, and looked good, too.
And Jobs had wild ideas. Not original ideas, but he could spot a diamond in the rough. For example, back then, Xerox, the behemoth corporation, was rolling in money from copier sales. They had so much money, they could pay a bunch of geeks to sit in a room and brainstorm all day. The geeks came up with the mouse and the graphical user interface (or GUI, what we use today, with the icon for a recycle bin, a task bar, scrolling menus, etc., as opposed to typing text commands). The brass at Xerox didn’t take notice. Jobs and Wozniak weaseled their way in to meet the geeks, who proudly showed them their inventions, and the Apple founders saw gold. They nodded politely, went back to their ramshackle headquarters and stole everything (of course, Windows would later rip off the Apple interface and use of mouse, but all’s fair…). This is not really captured in “Jobs,” but is detailed entertainingly in the better 1999 film “Pirates of Silicon Valley” (which has a great performance from Anthony Michael Hall playing Bill Gates.)
And while the 1984 Macintosh was considered the first successful commercial computer to use a GUI and mouse, Jobs and Wozniak did have some failures before that. Most notably was the Apple III, which was supposed to be the successor to the Apple II, but never caught on. At up to $7800, not fixed to inflation, and only up to 512KB in RAM, forget about having a hard drive, the Apple III was one costly clunker! While Jobs, the marketer, wanted a quiet machine without an internal fan, the reality of the day wasn’t with him. Jobs was concerned with the computer conveying a “feeling.” He was looking out for the user. But the lack of a fan meant that the boards would overheat. Chips would become displaced. The machine would cease running if left on long enough. Apple actually sent out directions to users to lift the machine a few inches off the table and to purposely drop it to knock chips back into place. Other reports told of users putting the machines on floors, opening them up and physically stepping on the boards to get the chips back in place. What a mess! Hardly the zen-like experience Jobs anticipated. Wozniak would later opine that the machine was a failure because its design was led by marketers, not engineers. Wozniak would be later bought out of the company. Apple scurried back to the Apple II line, which did have a foothold in elementary schools with educational programs like “The Oregon Trail,” and for a while Apple produced two incompatible, competing lines of computers, the Apple II and the Macintosh. I was in the Apple II camp back then. I liked pulling out cards, acting as both an engineer and an artist, while the Macintosh was meant to be for less technical users. It had a monitor built in, a hard drive, a mouse, quiet laser printers. Apple was putting all of its effort into the Mac line and the Apple II line was its more profitable, but neglected step child. This schism allowed a far inferior Windows to move in and take over by the 1990s, and Apple only had a tiny percentage of the market share for that decade and much of the following decade. Jobs came, went and came back. I was working in the 1990s in one of the few fields still using Macintoshes — newspapers. Jobs’ artistic sense led to the Mac’s better printing technology, rendering of fonts, etc., that allowed for newspapers to go from old-fashioned paste-ups to newer formats that allowed for greater creativity. The invention of the PDF by Adobe first took hold in the Apple world and publications could be saved and shipped to printers anywhere. In the mid-1990s, I worked for an American publication that only existed because it was able to send PDFs over the Internet to printing plants in London and Berlin. And, in the end, Jobs was right. Mac people seem like they are part of a cult — their machines cost twice as much as a Dell or Compaq and essentially are the same computers, but they can’t explain WHY their Mac is better. To them, it just IS. They are “at one” with something or the other. Anyone can operate an iPhone.
Maybe an invention isn’t as tangible as kicking chips into an overheated logic board. Maybe an invention simply is a feel. A user’s experience. A relationship. And perhaps that’s why it seems Jobs is so missed by his customers. Because isn’t everything — even religion with its beautiful statues and stained glass windows — marketing?