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D10: Larry Ellison, Ed Catmull discuss Steve Jobs legacy

After appearing separately in interviews at All Things Digital, Disney-Pixar Animation president Dr Ed Catmull and Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison sat together to discuss "the Lessons of Steve Jobs."

Dr. Ed Catmull on Pixar and Disney

In his initial interview with Kara Swisher, Dr. Catmull described his background in studying physics before helping to lay the groundwork in CGI as a grad student, working in an ARPA-funded program to build the initial frameworks of rendering complex computer-generated images.

After being recruited to join George Lucas' computer graphics division of Lucasfilm in the early 1980s, Dr. Catmull met Steve Jobs just after his ouster from Apple. He described Jobs interest in what would become Pixar at a time when the unit was principally a hardware company attempting to sell advanced imaging systems.

In 1991, five years after Jobs bought Pixar, the company signed a deal with Disney to produce a series of CGI films. At the time, CGI was entering the mainstream as films such as Terminator 2 and Beauty and the Beast arrived using technology developed by Pixar.

By 1995, Pixar had its first full length CGI movie in Toy Story. Dr. Catmull pointed out that the film intentionally focused on toy characters to avoid the problems in depicting realistic human faces, which the existing technology simply couldn't do well.

He also noted that Pixar focused on the goal of making good movies with a compelling story, while others were focused on solving technical problems. For Pixar, technology was not the goal, but rather the infusion of technology into the artistic process.

Dr. Catmull also described Pixar as intentionally focusing on storytelling, abandoning or completely rewriting projects that weren't telling a compelling story.

Pixar benefited early on from its proximity to Silicon Valley he said, particularly from seeing other companies fail after making poor decisions. Even after begin acquired by Disney, Pixar remained a separate entity, being far enough away from Hollywood to remain independent.

Despite managing both Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, Dr. Catmull noted that each group is run independently, and the two groups were designed to be unable to help each other, even when facing serious problems. That independence helped both units to grow stronger.

Larry Ellison at Oracle

Following Dr. Ed Catmull, Walt Mossberg introduced Ellison, who has served Oracle as its chief executive since 1977. Ellison detailed the progressive evolution of cloud computing, starting with attempts to replace complex PCs with simpler NCs or Network Computers in the late 1990s.

Ellison contrasted the Internet, a complex network supporting complex client PCs, with the water, telephone and electricity networks where network complexity allows for simple devices on the client side. Ellison has long worked to realize a future where Internet clients were simple, something that has only recently appeared with Apple's iPad and smartphones.

"The PC is a ridiculous device," Ellison stated as he described the emergence of network server-based "software as a service," referring to Facebook as "a brilliant piece of technology," and discussed the monumental efforts of Google.

Ellison also discussed modern marketing, where social networks allow companies to get immediate feedback, stating that "consumers are instrumented" before marveling that the consumer market is now larger than the enterprise market. He also pointed out that Oracle's acquisition of Sun has already paid for itself, and that "hardware is mostly software," noting that the iPhone is differentiated and valuable principally because of its sophisticated software.

Catmull and Ellison on Jobs

After their individual interviews, All Things Digital presented a video of a series of clips of Steve Jobs' appearances at the conference, and invited the two speakers to talk together about their experiences and recollections of working with Jobs.

Both men met Jobs shortly after his ouster from Apple in 1986 a quarter of a century ago. Among their observations was that Jobs had the ability to learn from mistakes. Ellison particularly noted that Jobs' departure from Apple was largely the result of Job's poor negotiation skills with Apple's board of directors.

Apple's board "made a terrible mistake" largely because of a personality issue, Ellison noted, before pointing out that, because of Jobs' past, today's generation of young leaders in Silicon Valley "don't trust their boards anymore," specifically noting that Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg can fire board members but can't be fired by their boards.

Jobs' ability to learn from his mistakes or from efforts that weren't working prompted Dr. Catmull to observe, "when you test the boundaries, what do you do with it?" Particularly at Pixar, Jobs' focus on the importance of people resulted in an original design of the company's headquarters, rather than just being a lip service concept.

Ellison noted that "in addition to his genius, he had a single mindedness and attention to detail," describing Jobs as "a bit of a control freak," and saying "he wanted to engineer every aspect " of not only the user interface of devices, but also how you paid for it in the store, how it looks in the box, the experience of opening it, how you bought apps and so forth.

"Steve was a god of perspiration, how he applied that horsepower until the problem was solved," Ellison said. "There are a lot of good ideas, but translating that into a great product is unbelievably hard," he observed, particularly noting the fiction that Jobs simply copied the Macintosh from Xerox PARC.

Ellison said he was familiar with using the Alto computer PARC had been working on, but that "finishing the Alto and turning it into the Macintosh was enormously complicated," adding that "Henry Ford didn't invent the car, but he made it cheap and accessible."

Dr. Catmull noted that Jobs "never came to a story meeting. He trusted that others knew things he didn't." He added that Jobs' "heart intellectually was inside Apple. He knew the difference of when to be in it and how to support others."

Despite frequently arguing with employees over the merits of a particular design decision, Jobs could be convinced that he was wrong. "The best idea wins. You had to persuade him, but he would listen. He wanted to build the best possible products."

Ellison added that despite not being a programmer, Jobs "had enough knowledge and understanding of the complete system to work with engineers as a great editor," adding that Jobs had "Picasso's aesthetic and Edison's inventiveness."

Asked how others could copy Jobs' secrets of success, both agreed that "if you're copying the surface your copying the wrong things," with Ellison noting that "Apple became one of the most valuable companies on earth and it wasn't even one of his goals!"

Jobs was obsessed with making great, beautiful products, and was always talking about products, the next big thing. Both also described Jobs' "brilliance of not being a follower," with a "contrarian nature. If everyone is doing this, what if they're wrong?" Ellison said.