A Brief History of Personal Computing -Part II


The PC Bible, Psalm 23

As I walk in the valley of the shadow of silicon, I will fear no innovation: For Apple art with me; thy iPad and thy GUI they comfort me.

When it comes to innovation, few can hold a candle to the boys from Apple. Though only Steve Jobs gets a mention nowadays, let’s not forget the real technical wizard behind Apple’s early success, Steve Wozniak. He singlehandedly designed and built the first Apple I and II computers, mostly in his garage, while Steve Jobs, even at this early stage, was the “ideas man” and handled marketing and capital raising.

Apple’s early computers where a hit with enthusiasts, but did not sell particularly well. With the introduction of the first “killer app”, the spreadsheet program VisiCalc, sales finally took off. In January 1977, less than a year after its inception, Apple was incorporated. IBM released its first personal computer in 1979, running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system. It was aimed at the business market and Apple responded in 1980 with the Apple III. It was a commercial failure and Apple never managed to break into the general business market in any meaningful way.

Why Apple went on to become the rip-roaring success it is today is somewhat of a mystery. No doubt a fateful visit by Apple engineers to the Xerox research lab just down the road had something to do with it. Steve Jobs had managed to extract a few days of unrestricted access for his engineers to see what Xerox researchers were working on. What they were working on was a Graphical User Interface, GUI for short and it would alter the course of computing history. From here on in Apple would claim the GUI to be their baby and in a way I don’t blame them. For it took the genius of Steve Jobs to recognise its importance!

Despite rather disappointing (and some say notoriously over-reported) sales figures, Apple’s 1982 share float was an incredible success, bringing in loads of capital, which was used to finance further research and development. Apple’s first GUI based computer, the LISA, was released in 1983, a commercial flop due to its high price. Infighting at Apple headquarters had seen Steve Jobs kicked off the LISA team and he was now overseeing the development of a lower cost successor, the Apple Macintosh. The Apple Macintosh was launched during the 1984 American Super Bowl with a stunning TV commercial* produced by Ridley Scott, of Alien & Blade Runner fame. The marketing style used in the launch of the Macintosh was to be the hallmark of Apple under the control of Steve Jobs.

Yet, despite all the hype and popular acclaim, by 1993 Apple was close to bankruptcy! What had happened? Steve Jobs, the man with the Midas touch, had squandered hundreds of millions developing products that never made it to market or were a commercial flop. His volatile management style and demanding personality, as well as the culture of geeky independence by key Apple employees didn’t help. In the end, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, got the sack!A lesser man might have been crushed, but Steve Jobs was made of sterner stuff. He went on to found or buy a number of businesses like Pixar and NeXt, a company specialising in the higher education market. Crucially, NeXT developed a Unix based operating system (with a GUI, of course) called NeXTSTEP.

Meanwhile, back at the Apple ranch, the new management team did not manage at all well and by 1997 Steve Jobs was begged to come back to mamma! He put his new operating system with that gorgeous GUI, the envy of Apple’s competitors, to good use and Steve Jobs was back in business! Whether he had learned from his mistakes or just had extraordinary good luck, we may never know. Anyhow, Apple’s new range of super stylish Macintoshes and super slim notebooks were a hit and finally started to sell well.

At the 2007 Macworld convention, after one of his trademark presentations full of new products, Steve Jobs finally walked off the stage to thunderous applause. But he was not finished! With carefully choreographed absentmindedness, he returned to the stage and produced from his pocket a device he called “iPhone”. A stunned audience watched on a giant screen as Steve Jobs put the iPhone through its paces. He tapped those cute icons on that brilliant touch screen GUI, he made those scrolling tables bounce a little when hitting the end. He swiped and pinched the screen, took photos, made a call, you name it. The audience, his disciples, went wild. Steve Jobs had descended from the mountain to hand them a tiny tablet. Not with rules to confine them but to set them free! The rest, as they say, is history…

6 years later Steve Jobs was dead! But not before turning Apple into one of the most profitable companies of all time! He gave us the Macintosh, iMac, iPhone, iPad. iTunes and lastly, the iCloud. He made Apple into the most recognised brand on the planet. He was a genius, he was flawed, he was a visionary; he was one extraordinary human being!

* If you are too young to remember the ad, just search uTube for “Apple 1984”. It’s well worth a look.