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Tuesday, January 26, 2010, 01:00 am PT (04:00 am ET)

Steve Jobs: Apple tablet "the most important thing I've ever done"

Adding fuel to the already blazing bonfire of excited anticipation surrounding the tablet-sized product Apple is expected to announce on Wednesday, CEO Steve Jobs has being quoted as saying, “This will be the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

That phrase was attributed to Jobs by Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, a figure who has been a frequent critic of Apple and its iPhone while cheerleading both Google's competing Android platform and his own dream of launching a tablet-sized product he called the "CrunchPad."

"We haven’t heard this first hand, but we’ve heard it multiple times second and third hand from completely independent sources," Arrington wrote. "Senior Apple execs and friends of Jobs are telling people that he’s about as excited about the upcoming Apple Tablet as he’s ever been. Coming from the man who has created so much, that’s saying something."

Arrington added, "If Steve Jobs thinks the iPhone was just a warm up act to this device, I can’t wait to see what it can do. As if our expectations weren’t already set high enough. We’ll all know a lot more this Wednesday."

Arrington's CrunchPad crushed by reality

Arrington's comments are interesting in particular because of his own role in envisioning a $200 tablet product in the middle of 2008, which he hoped to "open source" to a variety of manufacturers. A year later, Arrington wrote "one thing I’ve learned about hardware in the last year is that you need partners to actually make things happen." At the time, he credited Fusion Garage "entirely" for the design of the hardware prototype.

The CrunchPad product concept began to balloon in price to somewhere around $300 to $400 even with advertising subsidies anticipated from force-bundled software. Last October, Popular Mechanics awarded Arrington's vaporware CrunchPad as being one of "the top 10 most brilliant gadgets, tools and toys that you can buy in 2009," despite it not even being completed yet.

The next month, Arrington announced that his hardware partner had indicated that it planned to produce the device on its own, hoping that Arrington's TechCrunch would just promote it and not financially benefit as a partner. By the end of November, Arrington wrote that the CrunchPad project was dead and insisted that he would sue Fusion Garage to stop it from developing the product on its own.

In December, Fusion Garage announced it would be selling a $500 tablet device under the name JooJoo, and Arrington responded by suing the company in Federal court. Reviews described the product as "interesting" with impressive hardware, but also said it felt slow to respond and was a little buggy, with no option to do much apart from browsing the web.

With his newfound inkling of the efforts required to actually develop a real product, reach a realistic price target, and successfully bring a new device to market with third party application support while also capturing the attention of developers, Arrington is now ready to credit Jobs's efforts before even having seen Apple's latest product.

Jobs' finger on the pulse of technology

Apple's chief executive has demonstrated a spectacular accuracy in judging what people will buy, and perhaps what they should buy, over several decades. In the 1970s, a very young Jobs worked with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to craft a personal computer marketable to mainstream consumers. He insisted on making it both attractive and accessible to less technical users, resulting in Apple quickly rising to become a major computer maker.

In the 1980s, Jobs was so inspired by new technologies he saw under development at Xerox PARC that he worked to hire PARC researchers and shift millions of dollars of Apple's resources into developing a marketable personal computer with a graphical interface. Jobs encouraged early Macintosh engineers to create a truly intuitive computing environment that anyone could use, resulting in a personal computer revolution.

In 1985, Jobs tried to get Apple's executives to buy into his concept of a Macintosh Office, targeting the company's new product as a networked system for business users. When Apple's leadership rejected his idea and pushed him out of control of the company he had founded, Jobs left to develop the next wave of computing at NeXT, bringing lots of Apple's engineering talent with him.

At NeXT, Jobs presided over a massive engineering project to take a Unix operating system foundation and enhance it with a futuristic user operating environment that exposed desktop computing developers to advanced concepts like object-oriented development. Sued by Apple and shunned by Microsoft, NeXT languished for years until Apple acquired the company in the final days of 1996 for its innovative operating system technology.

By that time, Apple's conservative leadership had nearly run itself out of business both by failing to successfully develop its own new desktop operating system technology while also chasing the ultimately failed concept of stylus-based tablet computing with the Newton platform.

Jobs' return to Apple

After retaining control of Apple, Jobs canceled Newton along with a variety of other hopeless efforts and a litany of confusing product models to concentrate the company on building a strong but simple lineup of Macs and PowerBooks.

After Michael Dell's dismissive assertion that he would "shut [Apple] down and down and give the money back to the shareholders," Jobs responded by launching a new online web ordering system and announcing that "with our new products and our new store and our new build-to-order, we're coming after you, buddy," referencing a slide of Dell targeted in crosshairs.

Jobs brought in Tim Cook from Compaq to handle Apple's operations and the executive team rapidly turned the failing company around. In 1999, Jobs brought in Micky Drexler to help craft a retail strategy at a time when many pundits were willing to bet Apple's retail efforts would ultimately fail.

At the same time, Jobs also began assembling a software business, acquiring Final Cut from Macromedia followed by a series of other acquisitions and original software products that became a the Final Cut Studio and Logic Studio suites, Aperture, and the iLife and iWork consumer suites. Apple also rapidly advanced the technology it has acquired from Jobs' NeXT through several reference releases of Mac OS X.

A series of popular hardware products

Jobs unveiled the iMac in 1998 as a consumer-friendly, easy to set up and use personal computer, showing off an innovative translucent design that competitors were quick to mimic while introducing the first popular PC with USB and without a floppy drive.

Jobs delivered a reinvented flat panel iMac in 2002, which initiated a shift from bulky and environmentally unfriendly CRT displays. His company worked to continue that socially responsible and progressive trend with increasingly recyclable and non-toxic materials, culminating in the 2009 iMac, which uses LED backlit displays, aluminum enclosures and arsenic free glass.

In 1999, Jobs kicked off a decade of heavy investment in notebook technology with the consumer iBook featuring AirPort wireless networking, and then the sexy Titanium PowerBook aimed at professionals in 2001. Later that same year, he announced the iPod, which went on to both revolutionize and dominate the personal media player product category.

Jobs' least successful product introduction of the last decade was the G4 Cube, an upscale, dazzling acrylic block of small form factor personal computing that happened to hit the market just as the Dot Com bubble burst. While it wasn't ultimately successful in terms of unit sales, it solidified Apple's reputation for design savvy and entered the collections of modern art museums from New York to San Francisco. Many of its technical and design innovations were later applied to other products after it was canceled. Apple relaunched the product category in 2005 with the Mac mini.

In 2006, Jobs shifted Apple's Power PC Mac platform to Intel's x86 processor, a huge undertaking that the company transitioned with seemingly effortless grace. That same year, Jobs introduced Apple TV as a "hobby," and it has since become one of the most popular media set top boxes available to consumers in a very competitive and difficult market where no competitors are performing very well.

The next year, Jobs premiered the wildly successful iPhone in 2007, which has since defined what a smartphone should look like and how it should operate. His company then brought the iPhone's technology to the iPod touch later that same year, maintaining Apple's dominant leadership position in portable media devices. A year later, Jobs presented iPhone 2.0 in 2008 with a third party ecosystem which quickly became the most popular way to download mobile apps.

Just prior to that release, Jobs debuted the MacBook Air, a new product which straddled the existing ultralight notebook category while still providing a full sized keyboard and display and delivering a fast processor and a long life integrated battery. By the end of 2008, the entire MacBook notebook lineup was transitioned to the Air's innovative aluminum unibody design.

Jobs' stellar record for judging the needs and desires of the consumer market have allowed Apple to upstage formerly successful competitors from Microsoft to Sony to Nokia, Motorola and Palm. With Jobs now aiming at delivering a new tablet device, analysts are expressing optimism that Apple is likely to be able to market a successful product in a category where many previous attempts from a variety of makers have failed.