Cringely takes on Ashton Kutcher’s movie about Steve Jobs

Mark Stephens, a.k.a. Robert X. Cringely, wrote last week about his disappointment in Ashton Kutcher’s movie Jobs, about the late Apple co-founder and CEO.

Here’s the most important part of his quasi-review:

[S]omething happened during Steve’s NeXT years (which occupy less than a 60 seconds of this 122 minute film) that turned Jobs from a brat into a leader, but they don’t bother to cover that. In his later years Steve still wasn’t an easy guy to know but he was an easier guy to know. His gut for product was still good but his positions were more considered and thought out. He inspired workers without trying so much to dominate or hypnotize them.

Indeed.I don’t think people understand the importance of NeXT. NeXT was a failed computer company that slapped a user-friendly GUI and programming language on top of Unix. Sound familiar? It should. Where NeXT went wrong was trying to do it in 1988 and pricing the computer at $10,000. It was priced like the Apple Lisa and it sold like it, too.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I found an old interview with Jobs, the flailing CEO of the flailing NeXT, that probably dated to 1995 or 1996. He was clearly bitter. He lashed out at Microsoft, saying they dominate the industry despite not innovating anything, and he lashed out at Apple, saying, “That’s over. Apple lost.”

Apple was on the brink of going out of business. They needed a modern operating system to compete with Windows NT, and their efforts to develop one in house failed. They looked at two companies founded by ex-Apple employees: NeXT, headed by Steve Jobs, and Be, headed by Jean-Louis Gassée. In a surprise move, Apple paid $429 million for NeXT in December 1996 when they could have had Be for $200 million.

Several acidic Jobs-written memos quickly became Internet memes, if there was such a thing in 1997, and it seemed like the same old guy was back. And OS X, the modern operating system based on NeXT technology, didn’t appear for four and a half long years, finally debuting in desktop form in April 2001. But Apple hung in there, somehow, in the meantime, and at some point something in Jobs’ mind clicked that allowed him to orchestrate the greatest comeback in the history of the computer industry.

Without NeXT, there’s no OS X. And Apple iOS (this funky capitalization really drives me nuts) is basically NeXT ported to the ARM processor architecture and cut down to fit in a smaller memory space. So Apple’s phones, tablets, and all but its very earliest MP3 players all relied on that technology as well.

Had Apple saved $229 million and bought Be instead, they would have had a modern operating system ready to go much sooner, probably sometime in 1998. It already ran on Apple hardware; all it needed was a compatibility layer so that existing legacy OS 9 and earlier apps could run on it. And it seems to me that such a thing existed, or was in development, but the Internet seems to have forgotten about all of that. Be technology would have sufficed to save the Mac, and probably would have ported and scaled very nicely to ARM, but whose idea would it have been, without Steve Jobs around?

That time running a forgotten computer company is important. The technology developed there under Steve Jobs’ direction became the basis for all of the products that turned Apple into the world’s most valuable company. That’s important. But something else had to happen too. Jobs’ vision didn’t change much after he left Apple the first time, but if nothing else, the way he articulated it certainly did.

That’s an awful lot to gloss over in 60 seconds.

If I were writing about Steve Jobs, I’d focus on the struggles. The Lisa was a struggle. NeXT was a struggle. Getting the desktop version of OS X out sure seems like it must have been  a struggle. The successes? Everyone already knows that story, how people would stand in line for days every year, year after year, to buy a new cell phone. Why not spend 60 seconds on that?

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