Just Call Me The Seer: I Was Dead Right On Apple
By Stewart Alsop

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Nyaah-nyaah.

It gives me the utmost pleasure to say I told you so!

Some of you might remember a column I wrote early last year (see "Apple's Next Move Misses the Mark," Feb. 3, 1997, in the fortune.com archive) saying Apple did the wrong thing when it bought Next Software in December 1996. Boy, did I take heat on that column. So much heat that I wrote a column about how I got mail-bombed by the Evangelistas, a hardy group of Macintosh enthusiasts who hang out at www.evangelista.com and really objected to what I said in the first column (see "MacAttacked!" June 9, 1997, in the archive).

Apple bought Next (mostly from Steve Jobs, for $400 million) in order to turn its operating system into the next-generation system for the Macintosh. I criticized the decision for two reasons: (1) The company didn't need Next's operating system, although its own software did need improvement; and (2) What the company really needed was a visionary, someone like Steve Jobs, who at the time insisted he was not moving to Apple. I also accused Jobs of being pretty cynical for selling his company to Apple when he must have known that buying Next wasn't the right thing for Apple to do.

I was right, in spades. In fact, the only thing I got wrong was writing that Jobs didn't come with the deal. Apple absorbed Next and even tried for a while to turn the Next system into a logical next step for the Macintosh system. But Gil Amelio, the CEO who bought Next from Jobs, clearly didn't know what he had purchased. So he asked Jobs for advice and eventually got so much of that advice that he lost his job.

So Jobs did come back, and he has started to put Apple back on track. His most recent decision--no surprise to me--was to sideline the Next operating system, now called Rhapsody. Instead, Apple will look to a new operating system called Mac OS X, to be delivered to customers by the end of next year. While this new system will have many of the same features that Next/Rhapsody had, it will be homegrown by Apple's engineers so that it runs existing Macintosh programs.

As always in the computer business, announcing software in advance is much more an announcement of intent than a product announcement. Not everyone believes Apple can actually make a modern operating system that runs all the old software. We won't know whether it's possible until fall 1999, the alleged delivery date. But the truth is that this is precisely the move Apple needed to make, a move it couldn't even try until Jobs returned to run the company. Here's the interesting result: Apple Computer has a future, for the first time since at least 1993, when John Sculley left the company.

A future is what Apple really needed, not a new operating system. Getting a computer company a future is not a simple thing to do. And getting Apple a future was even less simple. Steve Jobs seems to be one of the few individuals in the world who truly understands that a computer company needs a vision of the future if its employees are going to invent great stuff. Getting a future involves imagining what the future should be, rather than starting with what is possible. Jobs is probably the only individual who could provide Apple with a future.

When Jobs returned to Apple, first as an adviser and then as the sort-of CEO (he's still listed as interim chief executive officer, and his biography lists him as chairman and CEO of Pixar, without mentioning his current involvement with Apple), he inherited a company that had lost its way. Former CEO Michael Spindler had decided to define Apple's success or failure relative to Microsoft's, during a time when Microsoft was booming by working with dozens of PC manufacturers. CEO Gil Amelio then decided to apply common sense and embarked on an effort to make Apple work more efficiently. But he was streamlining at a time when the company needed to be inspired. By the time Jobs returned, it was losing money, revenues were shrinking, software developers were jumping ship, and even longtime Macintosh users and lovers (like myself) had given up and switched to Windows.

Here's what you have to understand about Apple: The only reason this company ever prospered is that it gave people a better system for computing. The Macintosh was introduced in 1984 on the basic design principle of making computers that were easy to use, even though they were also complex and versatile enough to be programmed to do anything an individual might want. Under Jobs' leadership, that principle was taken to such an extreme that the machine almost failed for not being useful enough. But the Mac managed to survive, and by 1986 it was a major hit. Some 22 million people worldwide have bought Macs (that's according to Apple, although I think they count me as at least five different people, since I owned at least that many Macintoshes during the 11 years I used the machine.)

The key word in the above paragraph is "extreme." Steve Jobs is an extreme guy who doesn't seem to think anything is worth doing unless it can change the world. Jobs has now done at Apple exactly what the company needed: gotten extreme. Expect the one thing that everybody in the world said wasn't possible, which is to make a computer system good enough that Apple might even be able to get Windows users to switch. Make people think there might be a future for Apple, where apparently there was none.

Apple recently introduced what it calls the G3 series of computers, based on a new version of the Power PC microprocessor. These computers--a notebook, a traditional desktop, and the radical iMac, which packs both monitor and CPU into one cool duotone translucent case--are really fast, really cool, really interesting machines. Apple even advertises that the machines are inherently faster than similarly priced Windows machines based on the Intel Pentium II processor. (Who knows whether it's true. I gave up trying to figure out computer speeds a long time ago.)

Jobs has also introduced the idea of Mac OS X, which promises to let people keep using their old software while giving them the coolest and most important new features. Plus Jobs is beginning to make Apple an interesting place to work again, if only because he's personally a showman of the first rank.

Many of you know that when I joined my venture capital firm two years ago, I got our office to switch entirely to Windows software, both for our network servers and our personal machines. Now I look back and try to see what benefit we got from making that switch. The answer is simple: not much. The machines don't work very well. The software is hard to learn and inconsistent, and programs don't mesh as well as you would expect. Now I hear Steve Jobs pitch the coolness and speed and power of the Macintosh, and I get a certain twinge. Why not? Why shouldn't I have a computer that helps me work rather than getting in my way?

Apple feels like a company with a future, for the first time in years. I told you so!

STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Except as noted, neither he nor his partnership has a financial interest in the companies mentioned. Alsop may be reached at stewart_alsop@fortunemail.com