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The Back Page
by Bryan Chaffin

Uh-oh, Steve Jobs May Be Finished
October 8th, 1999

A couple of months ago I shared a two-part column with our own Wes George about whether or not Apple was for sale. Mr. George argued from the standpoint of a Wall Street analyst. After examining the many things happening at Apple at that time, his conclusions were that Apple was in fact for sale.

My argument was that while all that may be true (Mr. George knows his stuff), it did not apply to Apple. This was because I felt that Steve Jobs was not finished with what he set out to do. Well what if that has changed? What if he is finished after all? What if he has completed all that he set out to do?

Houston, we have a problem.

Three months later, we can jump to Mr. Jobs introduction of the new iMac line. There was something about the way he was presenting these new products that caused a fundamental shift in the way I perceived Steve Jobs. It was the look in his eyes, the sound of his voice, and even his very posture that showed me something in him that I have not seen before.

When I said before that I did not think that Mr. Jobs was finished with his plans at Apple, I was talking about building insanely great machines. I was also talking about a future that involved the kind of digital appliances that are currently the work of science fiction. My thoughts were that Mr. Jobs was working towards that future. In effect, even the great products that Apple is shipping today are nothing more than warmed over reworks of existing paradigms. I felt that Mr. Jobs saw these products as merely being the first step towards those future products. When everything was said and done, sometime in the future, Apple would be the Sony of the computer world as we all toted around our lapel pin computers with nifty holographic projectors for view screens.

A part of me still thinks that this may be true. However, enough has changed since I wrote that editorial that I have rethought the situation.

The biggest of these changes comes from Apple's current product line. With the PowerBook G3, the iBook, the PowerMac G4, and the new iMac product lines all shipping (more or less), Apple has a complete product line for the first time in at least 2 years. As Mr. Jobs himself pointed out in the iMac event, all of Apple's product line has either been introduced or updated within the last five months. That almost sounds like a goal doesn't it? All of Apple's product lines have been introduced or rejuvenated. That's a fairly remarkable feat to say the least, especially considering the fact that one of those products is utterly brand new (iBook), and one other might as well have been (iMac DV).

My point is that it almost seems as if Mr. Jobs wanted to make sure he was putting the house in order before the house sitters arrived. After all, it is any CEO's worst nightmare to have to deal with rolling out new products left over from the previous regime, and that makes trying to shop for a replacement more difficult.

There is something else about the new iMac that is actually what started me on this in the first place. The iMac DV is not just the new iMac, it is much more like the iMac that should have been introduced in the first place. Apple did what it needed to ship a good product, but the new iMac is a great product. Dare I say it? The new iMac is an insanely great product.

I am not talking about FireWire, DVD drives, or even the faster processors in the new iMac line. Instead, what draws my attention to the new iMacs is the convection cooling and lack of a fan. On the surface, it may seem to be a minor aspect of the machines, but it is not. A computer running on today's processors without a fan is…insanely great. The boys and girls in Cupertino must have stayed up late a few nights to make that happen. Let there be no mistake about it that this is an incredible engineering effort. Only Steve Jobs and his team at Apple would go to that effort.

It is that lack of a fan that Mr. Jobs seemed the most proud of, too. As we stated in our coverage of the new iMac's introduction, Mr. Jobs spent 3 minutes and 3 seconds of his 78 minute presentation talking about how quiet it was. That's some 3.9 % of the entire presentation that was dedicated to how quiet it was -- a presentation that included OS 9, AirPort, and recaps of other products in addition to the iMac itself. Most consumers will never even think about it, too.

Why did Mr. Jobs' dedicate so much time to this issue? It's because he hates noise coming from his products. Noise is a distraction. Noise is something that gets in the way of creativity. Noise is unnecessary. I think that computers that make noise are a personal affront to his sense of aesthetics, but I am conjecturing of course.

Mr. Jobs has always been after a quiet computer. In fact, I find it ironic that, in my first piece, I used the example of the Apple III's lack of a fan as an illustration of his quest for perfection. Another subtle aspect of this is that in the iMac DV roll out, Mr. Jobs referred to noise as one of the last great frontiers. Presumably he meant in the computer industry, but if it is the last great frontier, it is now a frontier that he has conquered. Mr. Jobs even made a point of saying that this was the first Mac to ship without a fan since the original Mac shipped 15 years ago. Kind of sounds like another goal met, doesn't it?

To top all off, this is how Mr. Jobs finished the introduction of the new iMac:

I think it's really cool (nervous laugh). And there it is. So there's nothing like this on the market. It is far more beautiful than anything I think that we've ever made before, and uhh, I'm just thrilled with it. I'm really, really thrilled with it. The new iMac.

I encourage you to either watch the presentation in QuickTime at Apple's web site, or to listen to the presentation at ZDNet (requires RealAudio) if you have not already done so, because there is a depth of emotion impossible to convey in print. This was an emotional moment for Mr. Jobs, the kind of emotion we have seldom seen from him. Coupled with the classy thank you to the employees at Apple and then the employee's families, parts of the presentation almost seemed like a goodbye. It even seemed like a wrapping-up kind of presentation.

As usual, I find the need to argue with myself on this issue. I would like to think that Mr. Jobs' vision extends far into the future. I would like to think that he wants to help usher in the next era of digital appliances. There is no other place in the world where he can do that except Apple Computer. As a point in fact, there was the recent comments made by Larry Ellison, a close friend of Steve Jobs and a current Board Member of Apple Computer, that hints of an Apple handheld. After seeing the iBook and the new iMacs, don't you want to see how Mr. Jobs would make a handheld computer? You know it would be cool and you know it would run some version of the MacOS. You know it would be insanely great.

It would also be a significant step in that bridge to digital appliances. This is what makes me hope that my new outlook on Mr. Jobs is dead wrong.

For all of his faults, and we have certainly found fault with both Mr. Jobs and Apple Computer itself, he is the single greatest visionary in the computer industry. It is his vision that will bring us to those damned lapel computers -- 20 years faster than it could happen without him.

For that reason, I am hoping that the iMac introduction was not a prelude to him saying goodbye.

Your comments and hate mail can be sent to backpage@macobserver.com.


began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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