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Wednesday, October 05, 2011, 07:00 pm PT (10:00 pm ET)

Steve Jobs: a lifetime of visionary disruption in advancing technology


A Visionary: 1980s

Jobs' vision in the market for technology products only got stronger and more focused during the 1980s. He pushed Apple to invest tens of millions into making elements of technology that originated at Xerox PARC into a new technology product intended to be as easy to use as a kitchen appliance.

Apple's original graphical computer system, the 1983 Lisa, continued to be too expensive to tap a mainstream audience. In parallel, Apple worked to bring graphical computing elements to its Apple II line while also extending that product to deliver the still text-based Apple III. Rushed to market to keep Apple competitive with the new IBM PC, the Apple III became the company's first significant failure.

Jobs, however, had little interest in the Apple II, III, or the still too expensive Lisa, directing his attention to a secondary effort within Apple to adapt Lisa's graphical computing technology to work on a scaled down system that could be affordable to mainstream audiences. The development of the Macintosh ended up being a far larger and more difficult project than originally anticipated, delaying its release until 1984.

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After taking over the Macintosh project, Jobs pushed its engineering team to aspire to achieve greatness, rather than simply delivering a product that could sell. Jobs became notorious for micromanaging details that didn't seem critically important to others, while remaining focused on a vision of a computing appliance anyone could use without the extensive training and regular visits to the owner's manual that computing products of the day required.

Jobs' disregard for existing technical barriers and his passionate efforts to inspire engineers at Apple to deliver the seemingly impossible earned him the notion of having a "reality distortion field" that allowed him to convince others to achieve far more than they thought possible, something that would drive and change the world around him throughout the rest of his career.

Jobs' many critics would later use "RDF" as shorthand for ridiculing Jobs as a charlatan phony, claiming that his "reality distortion field" was just a trick to mislead customers into buying original products rather than the cheap knockoffs those critics usually preferred.

While driving the Macintosh team, Jobs formed new partnerships with Microsoft (to port its struggling DOS spreadsheet software to the Mac's new graphical desktop) and Adobe and Canon (to pair Adobe's PARC-originated PostScript language with Canon's laser printing engine). Jobs also envisioned a "Macintosh Office," where Apple's graphical systems would work together using networking technology developed at PARC to share documents, exchange messages, and collaborate on work projects.

Microsoft would later take the work it collaborated with Apple to build and use it to develop a competing graphical operating environment running on IBM's PC platform, ultimately encouraging Adobe to similarly double-cross Apple in moving its graphical software to Microsoft's Windows platform a decade after Jobs had ignited a market for both companies in developing graphical software for the Macintosh platform.

At the same time, Jobs' vision for the Macintosh Office began to run into financial realities at Apple, as sales of the new system failed to rapidly take off just as competitive pressure from the backward facing IBM PC (a system that belonged firmly in the 1970s) began to gain significant traction among businesses. Apple was successfully selling lots of Apple II systems to schools and home users, populating many offices with a single Lisa for producing complex documents, but sales of the Macintosh were not reaching the mainstream audience as Jobs had hoped.

As the old fashioned IBM PC lumbered into the mainstream, Apple's board and the chief executive Jobs had recruited in 1983, John Sculley, increasingly joined forces to curtail Jobs' efforts to spend more money pushing the Macintosh as Apple's future. In 1984, just as Apple was finally releasing the Macintosh as its next generation system, Sculley announced "Apple II forever" at the unveiling of the company's latest version of the 8-bit text based computer.

While technically uninspiring, the Apple II was earning the vast majority of the company's revenues, making it risky for Jobs to aggressively push the incompatible Macintosh platform. As the economy faltered and Macintosh systems continued to wallow, Jobs differences with the Apple board and CEO finally reached a boiling point that resulted in Jobs' forced departure from the company he founded, at age 30. After his departure, sales of Macs began to increase as the Macintosh Office ignited the new market for desktop publishing.

Jobs later described feeling like a "very public failure" at the time, before "realizing that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. Less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

After breaking from Apple, Jobs used the wealth earned from founding the company to create a new enterprise named NeXT Computer, which he envisioned leapfrogging the Macintosh to incorporate a new generation of technology advancements. Originally an effort to develop cross platform tools, NeXT quickly became a hardware competitor, ultimately debuting in 1988 a sleek black cube equipped with an advanced digital signal processor, accurate PostScript graphics and a UNIX-based core operating system with a usability environment built on top of it, giving it a stronger foundation than the appliance-like embedded operating system of the original Mac.

As in the development of the Macintosh, Jobs applied his vision for seeing the application of new technologies that were then confined to computing laboratories, giving the NeXT system an advanced, flexible software development environment that built upon object oriented design, another technology that had its roots at Xerox PARC. Apple pursued legal action to stop NeXT from directly competing with the Macintosh, resulting in an agreement that limited NeXT's potential audience.

On page 3 of 5: An Insider: 1990s