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Apple's 15 years of NeXT

Jobs' golden decade of Apple

By 2001, five years after buying NeXT, Apple was ready to open its first retail stores, ship its first build of Mac OS X, and launch what would become its highly disruptive move into consumer electronics with the iPod. The iPod itself would become so important to Apple's business that it served to remove the "computer" from name of Apple Computer.

Jobs outlined a digital hub strategy that made the iMac the center of a variety of devices, a strategy that lasted throughout the 2000s as Apple continuously improved upon the core foundation of Mac OS X and progressively enhanced its hardware.

In the middle of the 2000s, Jobs directed Apple to switch from PowerPC chips to Intel, a move that enabled Mac users to run Windows, therefore making its machines more accessible to corporate users and others that still needed to work in the Windows world.

Around the same time, Apple also began work on developing a tablet computer, efforts that materialized in the iPhone in 2007. The iPhone and its scaled down version of Mac OS X, eventually named iOS, would become a much larger business than the Macintosh itself.

By the end of the decade, Jobs launched the iPad as a full priced tablet computer, with its road to revenues paved by the wildly successful iPhone. While the iPhone had entered a fiercely competitive, deeply entrenched market and embarrassed all incumbents while rocketing upward to become the top selling phone globally, the iPad, like the iPod before it, largely created its own market, one that competitors have yet to encroach upon.

Between 2001 and 2010, the market value of Apple's shares grew from a split adjusted $10 to $315, leaving the company the most valuable technology company on the planet, earning the most revenues and the most profit. Apple had broken out of its limited niche in computing, took over and transformed the market for music and movies with the iPod and iTunes, mastered the mobile phone industry (where its only remaining credible competitor is an open source project offering itself for free) and introduced a new mobile form factor in computing with the first successful tablet.

A world without Apple's NeXT

Without NeXT, and without the drive and creativity and vision of Jobs, the man behind the company Apple purchased 15 years ago, Apple Computer would likely have instead simply been bought out and dismantled before the 90s had even ended. The Macintosh would have become a footnote in history much like the Amiga.

The personal audio player market would likely have been dominated by Microsoft and its PlaysForSure system, which locked down songs and limited which ones users could burn to mix CDs at the whim of publishers.

Without Mac OS X, Microsoft would still be working on versions of Windows 2000 (not XP, which was named to coincide with Apple's product). There would be no Windows Vista/7 and its advanced GPU driven compositing graphics engine that was derived directly from Apple's pioneering efforts with Mac OS X's Quartz Compositing.

Without the iPhone, there would be no easy to use touchscreen mobile devices. Instead, Android would look just as it did before the iPhone: a button-centric alternative to PalmOS and Windows Mobile and the Blackberry, none of which would have changed much in the past four years. There would be no tablets. There would be no effort to build Ultrabooks just like the MacBook Air. We'd only have a wide variety of cheap, low quality netbooks to choose from.

The profits of Nokia, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Palm, HP, Adobe and others would be largely unchallenged, preventing them from extending much effort to improve their offerings. Microsoft wouldn't be building a low cost App Store for its mobile and desktop platforms, and Google would still be focused on selling low end notebooks that can only browse the web. The companies that today are failing and don't know why or how to stop failing would still be running the tech industry.

What's next for Apple

While the world this year lost the man who founded both Apple and NeXT, and who managed to fix Apple after it strayed away from his vision, and who assembled a team capable of restoring the notion of greatness being at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, Jobs has left behind a clear legacy that begs to be followed, not just by his executive team at Apple, but by other companies around the world.

Apple is stronger than ever as a company. It has global retail operations in place, a strong position in mobile and desktop products, sits on the bleeding edge of research and development and is flush with cash, all things it desperately lacked 15 years ago.

But Apple also now has the ability to recognize when its failing and take action. Over the past 15 years, Apple has grown capable of backing out of efforts that were losing money, even if the strategy appeared to be right. Apple pushed into the server market with the Xserve, Xserve RAID and Xsan, only to find that simply offering a much cheaper alternative wasn't going to suffice in a market that demanded handholding customer service and support.

Apple has learned that quitting when you're in the wrong place is as important to success as pushing ahead when you're on the right track. Apple has similarly scaled back its Pro Apps to deliver powerful functionality for the mainstream, rather than trying to cater to tiny minorities of pro users that can be better served by specialist developers. And its executives regularly repeat the idea that Apple knows what not to do.

Just fifteen years ago, Apple couldn't say no, couldn't say yes, couldn't deliver upon its plans, and couldn't convince investors that it was worth believing in. It's been a remarkable decade and a half for the company that rediscovered its founder and reshaped the industry to fit his vision.