My First Encounter With Steve Jobs

It was Friday, May 16th, 1997, and I was at my 5th WWDC. Steve Jobs had returned to Apple thanks to Apple’s purchase of NeXT, but he was only an adviser to CEO Gil Amelio. In a closing WWDC keynote, Mr. Jobs took some questions, and this author, an aerospace engineer at the time, had one ready.

In 1997, Apple was not yet out of the woods. Pieces were being put into place, and Mr. Jobs was cautiously optimistic having seen some really good talent at Apple after he came back. It was time to get some visibility with the Apple developers.

David Krathwohl introduced Mr. Jobs in a special closing keynote so that Mr. Jobs could see what was on the developers’ minds. The session opened with a question about OpenDoc — which Apple had just killed — and it was a huge sore spot with the audience. Already, it was clear that Mr. Jobs had other plans, and this was a turning point in history. Mr. Jobs was starting to articulate a new vision and redefine Apple’s fundamental new direction, namely, fabulous Mac hardware, at “the top of the food chain” in his words.

Steve Jobs in 1997

More generally, the whole session highlighted everything that was wrong with Apple. It all crystalized in the minds of the developers and was verbalized. One gets the sense that the future Apple CEO had pretty much figured it all out, based on his experience at NeXT, and had great plans. If only he could somehow come to be in charge of Apple…

At 45:43, Mr. Jobs turns his attention to a Lockhed Martin senior software engineer, yours truly*, who is beginning to sense that Apple was turning things around and would like to see some TV commercials that address Apple’s emerging new technologies. That’s because Apple was still being roundly beat up by the competition in TV ads, as I pointed out in a follow-up comment. In perfect hindsight, the request was premature.

You can see the wheels in Mr. Jobs head working at this point. No doubt, he knew about the development of the first iMac, and he sensed that it would be a consumer sensation. But first things first. Apple had to ship the iMac, nurse it into success, then sit back and wait for the Wall Street Journal and other major publications to state that “Apple is back.” That was the desired imprimatur.

So at this point, Mr. Jobs isn’t interested in TV ads because he knows that Apple does not yet have but needs a blockbuster hardware hit. His feeling is that marketing has to lead to profits, and at this point expensive TV ads are a waste of precious resources, namely money that could be better spent on R&D. In hindsight, it’s perfectly clear that Apple’s empty boasts couldn’t convince the world that everything was okay. Only a fabulously successful product could.

John Martellaro in 1997

The author at the microphone**

But at the time, we in the audience were nevertheless very eager, jumping the gun to put it plainly, for Apple to flex its new muscles and talent in a more visible way. The idea of print ads just didn’t seem bold enough at the time. We were wrong.

The rest is history. Apple released the Bondi blue iMac about a year later, in August 1998, and it was an instant hit. Then, and only then, the now famous TV ads narrated by Jeff Goldblum started to flow.

This closing WWDC 1997 keynote is an immensely informative and historically important video. It reveals the mindset of the developers at the time and how Mr. Jobs was constructing, in his own mind, the future course of Apple.


* I did not join Apple until August, 2000 to do science and technology marketing for Apple’s new UNIX-based Mac OS X.

** I believe that’s Mark Jeffries with Genentech behind me.