Steve Jobs at NeXT: Apple’s Government in Exile
As I was reflecting on the death of Steve Jobs, I thought back to the impact Apple had on my career, and my one encounter with Steve Jobs. Much of the coverage of his life and death focused on Steve starting Apple in a garage, making it a huge success, and turning over the reins a month before his death. Though of course it is included, the 12 years from 1985 to 1997 when Steve Jobs was not at Apple are as significant a part of Apple’s history as what was going on at Apple. It made me realize that Steve Jobs at NeXT was in essence Apple’s government in exile, a shadow government whose parallel efforts, once rejoined with Apple, allowed something to happen that may not have happened had Jobs stayed at Apple for the duration.
I developed products for the Macintosh from 1985 to 1993. At Kinetics, we launched the first practical product to connect the Mac to the Internet (yes, there was an Internet back then, folks). By the time we started Kinetics, Jobs was out at Apple and by the time we shipped our first product, he had started NeXT (one of our first customers, by the way). He would not return until 1997, and in the meantime Apple continued to develop inspired products with loyal customers and remarkable marketing. I stayed close to the company, and as Kinetics became part of Excelan we continued to integrate Mac computers into the mainstream.
My one meeting with Steve Jobs was at the NeXt announcement (and some phone calls leading up to it) to see what the combined Kinetics and Excelan team could do for NeXT. Given that the NeXT computer had built-in everything that Kinetics and Excelan were adding on to everyone else’s computers, we all realized that there wasn’t much to do. NeXT gave us a nice cube to play with just in case we got clever, but that was it. We went on to join up with Novell, and integrating NeXT into the multiprotocol NetWare environment made sense, so we kept our connection going.
We kept working with Apple, as well, on projects such as Star Trek (joint Intel+Novell+Apple effort to put the MacOS on the Intel platform) and OpenDoc, while Apple was losing its edge and its way, replacing Sculley with Spindler and Spindler with Amelio. The MacOS was running out of steam relative to new operating systems, and having a harder time competing with Windows as well as threats from more capable operating systems like OS/2 and Unix as packaged by vendors such as Sun.
Meanwhile, Steve Jobs at NeXT continued to develop its technology, initially as a high-end workstation of hardware and software, but ultimately the software that could be used to combine a powerful operating system with a user experience layer. By the time Amelio at Apple needed a fix for the future, it was already there in NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP. Amelio’s best idea at Apple also presaged it as his last. He hired Steve Jobs back.
OPENSTEP became OS X, and continued to become iOS. It allowed the Mac to survive into relevance into the new century. It made the Mac the computer of choice, and especially the notebook of choice, for many Unix-based developers who were developing a new generation of Internet-integrated platforms, interfaces, and applications. It allowed Apple to develop the iPod, iPhone, iPad and revolutionize multiple industries, to make the new century truly a new century.
What would have happened had Steve Jobs not been able to develop this platform at NeXT, unencumbered by the large organization and market responsibilities of a well-established Apple? Could he have done it there? Maybe. If he had not gone on to develop this at NeXT, where would Apple have turned in 1997 after abandoning its in-house efforts. Who knows? BeOS? My guess is that Apple would have been bought by HP.
But it didn’t happen that way. Steve Jobs went to NeXT, did what he did, came back, and here we are. I spent most of my time on the Apple side of that parallel path, but it’s good to see clearly that both paths led to what we know as Apple today.