TechCrunch re-writing history for Steve Jobs.

For Thanksgiving, Michael Arrington posted an article on TechCrunch entitled “What If Steve Jobs Hadn’t Returned To Apple In 1997?“.

The gist of the article is that Steve Jobs himself is responsible for every ounce of good stuff that Apple has ever done.

“Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. Traditionally we take stock of the things that we’re thankful for on this day each year. And I realized that one of those things is Steve Jobs.”


And it is complete, and utter, rubbish.

Well.  Almost complete rubbish.

One thing this article does get right is the history of Apple’s acquisition of NeXT (Steve Jobs old company).  At the time, Apple Computer (it used to be called that before Apple decided they didn’t want to be associated with “Computers” anymore and just became “Apple”) was attempting to purchase Be, inc. with the intention of using BeOS as the basis of the new MacOS (which would have, in all reality, made a much better technological and ideological fit for Apple).

At the end of 1996, as negotiations between Apple (headed by Gil Amelio) and Be (headed by Jean-Louis Gassée, the former head of Apple France) broke down, Apple changed its mind at the last minute and purchased NeXT.  The result is that Nextstep became the basis for MacOS X.

And, time marching ever forward, Be inc. got purchased by Palm.  And the BeOS faded away.  (Though an open source implementation of BeOS called Haiku has been recently released in alpha form.)

That part of the history… the TechCruch article got right.  Then it jumped off the tracks.

“In 1997 Apple had a snoozy product line that included the ill-fated Newton, the Performa, the Power Macintosh, the PowerBook a bunch of printers and a few servers.”

Snoozy?  Snoozy?

Are you freaking kidding me?  Was Michael Arrington even alive in the mid-90’s?

applenewton_emate300The Newton was, for those who can remember back that far, revolutionary.  It was a huge deal.  The company had some serious problems with it (marketing being one of the big ones), but the devices (and the Newton OS that powered them) were many years ahead of their time.  Case in point: it still holds up strangely well against a current iPhone (Newton’s had multi-tasking, etc. way back in the old days).   And, of course, there was the eMate 300 (which was a Newton-powered laptop that featured a rechargeable battery that, I kid you not, lasted through 28 hours of continuous usage).

Mike’s list also leaves off the “20th Anniversary Mac“.  Which was pretty stinking rad (and released the first week of 1997).

Problematic?  Sure.  But far, far, from “snoozy”.  In fact, I’d go so far as to call these items “extremely impressive and way ahead of their time”.

“Fast Forward to today. Apple has the sexiest products in the business: iMacs, Macbooks, iPhones, iPods and more. Even the Mac Mini has a place in my home, powering my television.”

The iMac is the the PowerMac G3 All-In-One with a new case.  A great machine.  That, of course, being the machine that really got Apple back on track in the late 90’s.  But the groundwork was laid by Jobs’ predecessor.

“They’ve accelerated the pace of change in the music, film and television industries as well with the iPod and iTunes. And they’ve redefined the mobile phone with the iPhone.”

Okay.  “redefined the mobile phone with the iPhone”… kinda sounding like an over-the-top fanboy there, Mike.

“If Gassée, or anyone else, had become the CEO of Apple back in 1997, how many of these products would exist today?”

“How likely would the iPhone have been? And next year we’ll see an Apple Tablet computer. Does anyone think anyone but Steve Jobs would have pushed that product to market?”

Here’s the bit that really makes me doubt that Mike even has a slight clue about what was happening in the industry back in the mid to late 90’s.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, one of hist first acts as the i-CEO was to kill the Newton.

That’s right.  The thing closest to a tablet.  The thing closest to a phone and closest to an MP3 player.  He killed it off.

Why, you ask?  Well, it wasn’t a financial decision.  The State of Texas was set to buy millions of eMates to replace text books for students.  And the entire country of Australia was looking to replace their aging computer systems with eMates.

So the devices were way ahead of their time.  And they were selling.

And, to date, Apple has not released a Tablet computer.

be_logo_sBut, you know who has?

Be. inc. under the leadership of Gassée.  They released a version of the BeOS called BeIA (Internet Appliance) and worked with Sony and Compaq to release tablets based on it.  But, unfortunately, these were a few years too early (and too pricey).

You know who else?  Apple Computer under the leadership of John Sculley, Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio (In the form of the Newton line of touch screen devices).

That’s right.  Mike’s whole point seems to be that nobody but Steve Jobs would ever be awesome enough to release cool products like “Tablets” or “touch screen pda-like devices”.  And that Jobs, himself, is responsible for the iMacs, etc.

And all of that is just plain wrong.  Crazy, crazy wrong.

Steve Jobs is responsible for killing off many of the innovative (and successful) products and projects that Apple had going at the time.  I think it’s a fair guess that, had Steve Jobs not returned to Apple, that Apple’s product line would be far more impressive by this point than it is (though, perhaps, with less glossy white plastic).

Steve Jobs has done plenty of good stuff.  Feel free to write lots and lots of glowing articles about those things.

But please.  I implore you.  Do not re-write history just because you think Steve Jobs is pretty.

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  • Mohan

    Anything coming from Michael Arrington should be always taken with a grain of salt.

  • Shawn J. Goff

    Oh, snap!

    I almost bought an eMate. Did you know that the Newton OS had a cool contact application that would dial phone numbers for you? You hold the phone up to the speaker of the Newton and push the dial button on the newton: “Beep beep boop beep…” I thought that was pretty rad.

  • Mike Evans

    Michael Arrington might not be the only one looking at the past through distorted lenses here. I’m not Steve’s biggest fan, but I can clearly remember Apple teetering on the brink of collapse and the assumption was that Sun would buy Apple. It took Jobs coming back and a cash infusion from Microsoft to bring it back. So for thanksgiving, I’m really grateful to Bill Gates for indirectly causing some of the douchiest TV advertising campaigns ever.

  • Craig Baldwin

    Nice article, as long as Jonathan Ive had stayed at Apple, their products would have still looked great.

  • Kerberos

    Much as I dislike what Apple has become, I think a lot of credit (although not all) is still due to Jobs. I think his focus on perfection and creating devices for users rather than letting engineers create playthings in isolation is largely due to their success.

    The iPod pretty much put Apple on the map and it was honestly a breath of fresh air and set the standard in terms of consumer electronics – up to that point all mp3 players were ugly bricks festooned with buttons.

    I think Steve Jobs probably lives by the phrase “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” The current success of Apple rests on the belief in simplicity and beauty, both traits which got Apple to where it is today.

    The consistant failure to challenge Apple says volumes – most people don’t even appear to realise why they are a success (chalking it up to marketing). Even Microsoft and dozens of other companies try throwing billions at the problem and still come up short.

    I’d still jam the one-button mouse up anyones ass that tried to get me to use it though. :)

  • Christina Warren

    Here’s the thing, “what-if” articles are a nice creative exercise but we all know it is relatively pointless. That said, I don’t think your historical recollection is any less of a rewrite than Arrington’s. If Arrington gives Jobs too much credit you most assuredly deny him too much.

    Let’s take the Newton. Withoutba doubt, it was a revolutionary product, but it had major, major issues. The Palm Pilot was able to win, despite being technically inferiror the same way the iPod has won over supposedly superior MP3 players: it worked when it counted, was easy to use and had a wide array of accessories.

    I was pretty young when the Newton was out, but my uncle had an eMate and a Palm Pilot. Even at 13 or 14 (and a big Apple fan in the mid-90s), I knew the Palm made more sense.

    Now let’s talk about BeOS. I often wonder about how much time makes us think stuff was better than it was. I remember playing with the x86 version in ’98 and although it was impressive — I don’t know how good it really was. I was 15 or 16 then and I didn’t have enough hardware to keep it on my main system for that long but it was always more pretty than functional. Sure, maybe it could have been great, but it didn’t appear to have any intrinsic APIs like NeXTStep did with Yellow Box (which became Cocoa).

    The fact that NeXT and Be were both formed by former Apple guys indicates that both would have been a good fit. But I don’t think Jean-Louis could ever be more Apple than Steve Jobs.

    I also think that assuming Apple could have continued without Steve is a very unlikely thought. Even if wholly undeserved (and I don’t think it was), his mere pressence gave investors, developers and users faith that Apple could make it through. His design initiaives and marketing campaigns for the iMac and beyond reinvigorated Apple.

    The company might have had some interesting products pre-1997 (though the truth is most pre-G3 PowerPC Macs just flat out sucked. Pentium wad supperior and build quality was often spotty. Clone maker UMax made some spectacularly shoddy products.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t remember the pre-Steve Apple of the late ’90s being all that wonderful.

  • Namenlos

    @ Christina,

    Don’t you have more of your insipid articles to “totally” write? Such as you masterpiece on making a “theme” which consisted of adding Mac Hipster wallpaper to Windows 7.

  • Leif Andersen

    He, he. Someone is cranky with Michael Arrington, although probably not as much as Leo Laport was a few months back. Still, I would love to see you and Michael locked up in a room together, and to add icing on the cake, either RMS, or Jason moderating the fight.

    Oh, and for the record, I find it interesting that Apple constantly releases new products that they said no one would ever want, and that they said they would never release, anyone ever remember Steve Jobs saying who would ever want to watch video on an iPod?

  • arbulus

    Arrington is a sensationalist ass and a liar.


    The point about Jobs changing Apple really is accurate. Apple was on the verge of going out of business before Jobs came back. Without Jobs’ return, Apple wouldn’t exist at all today. Their products were flops in the market and the people running the company had no vision or idea what they were doing.

    Jobs turned all that around.

    Sure, the first iMac may have been the all in one PowerMac in a new case. So what? It turned the market upside down. That’s what matters.

    The iPod IS the mp3 player market. There is no other device on the market that can even compete in price or storage capacity with the iPod. And the iTunes store is the largest music retailer in the US.

    And the iPhone DID revolutionize the mobile phone industry. Saying anything else is equivalent to sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LALALALALALALALALALA.” Every phone wants to be the iPhone. Every phone wants to be touch screen, have an app store, etc. Hell, just walk around any crowded public space and see how many people have iPhones. It is simply mind boggling. Acknowledging this is not being a “fanboy”, it’s simply accepting reality.

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