Apple’s Steve Jobs told us what we needed before we knew

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The Apple II, which hit the market in 1977, was their first machine for the masses. It became so popular that Jobs was worth $100 million by age 25.

During a 1979 visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Jobs again spotted mass potential in a niche invention: a computer that allowed people to control computers with the click of a mouse, not typed commands. He returned to Apple and ordered his engineering team to copy what he had seen.

It foreshadowed a propensity to take other people’s concepts, improve on them and spin them into wildly successful products. Under Jobs, Apple didn’t invent computers, digital music players or smartphones — it reinvented them for people who didn’t want to learn computer programming or negotiate the technical hassles of keeping their gadgets working.

“We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas,” Jobs said in an interview for the 1996 PBS series “Triumph of the Nerds.”

The engineers responded with two computers. The pricier Lisa — the same name as his daughter — launched to a cool reception in 1983. The less-expensive Macintosh, named for an employee’s favorite apple, exploded onto the scene in 1984.

The Mac was heralded by an epic Super Bowl commercial that referenced George Orwell’s “1984” and captured Apple’s iconoclastic style. In the ad, expressionless drones marched through dark halls to an auditorium where a Big Brother-like figure lectures on a big screen. A woman in a bright track uniform burst into the hall and launched a hammer into the screen, which exploded, stunning the drones, as a narrator announced the arrival of the Mac.

There were early stumbles at Apple. Jobs clashed with colleagues and even the CEO he had hired away from Pepsi, John Sculley. And after an initial spike, Mac sales slowed, in part because few programs had been written for it.

With Apple’s stock price sinking, conflicts between Jobs and Sculley mounted. Sculley won over the board in 1985 and pushed Jobs out of his day-to-day role leading the Macintosh team. Jobs resigned his post as chairman of the board and left Apple within months.

“What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating,” Jobs said in his Stanford speech. “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever 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.”

He got into two other companies: Next, a computer maker, and Pixar, a computer-animation studio that he bought from George Lucas for $10 million.

Pixar, ultimately the more successful venture, seemed at first a bottomless money pit. Then in 1995 came “Toy Story,” the first computer-animated full-length feature. Jobs used its success to negotiate a sweeter deal with Disney for Pixar’s next two films, “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2.” Jobs sold Pixar to The Walt Disney Co. for $7.4 billion in stock in a deal that got him a seat on Disney’s board and 138 million shares of stock that accounted for most of his fortune. Forbes magazine estimated Jobs was worth $7 billion in a survey last month.

With Next, Jobs came up with a cube-shaped computer. He was said to be obsessive about the tiniest details, insisting on design perfection even for the machine’s guts. The machine cost a pricey $6,500 to $10,000, and he never managed to spark much demand for it.

Ultimately, he shifted the focus to software — a move that paid off later when Apple bought Next for its operating system technology, the basis for the software still used in Mac computers.

By 1996, when Apple bought Next, Apple was in dire financial straits. It had lost more than $800 million in a year, dragged its heels in licensing Mac software for other computers and surrendered most of its market share to PCs that ran Windows.

Larry Ellison, Jobs’ close friend and fellow Silicon Valley billionaire and the CEO of Oracle Corp., publicly contemplated buying Apple in early 1997 and ousting its leadership. The idea fizzled, but Jobs stepped in as interim chief later that year.

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