Apple found massive success on the back of the Apple II. They went public like many of the late 70s computer companies and the story could have ended there, as it did for many computer companies of the era who were potentially bigger, had better technology, better go to market strategies, and/or even some who were far more innovative.
But it didn’t. The journey to the next stage began with the Apple IIc, Apple IIgs, and other incrementally better, faster, or smaller models. Those funded the research and development of a number of projects. One was a new computer: the Lisa. I bet you thought we were jumping into the Mac next. Getting there. But twists and turns, as the title suggests.
The success of the Apple II led to many of the best and brightest minds in computers wanting to go work at Apple. Jobs came to be considered a visionary. The pressure to actually become one has been the fall of many a leader. And Jobs almost succumbed to it as well.
Some go down due to a lack of vision, others because they don’t have the capacity for executional excellence. Some lack lieutenants they can trust. The story isn’t clear with Jobs. He famously sought perfection. And sometimes he got close.
The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC for short, had been a focal point of raw research and development, since 1970. They inherited many great innovations, outlandish ideas, amazing talent, and decades of research from academia and Cold War-inspired government grants. Ever since Sputnik, the National Science Foundation and the US Advanced Research Projects Agency had funded raw research. During Vietnam, that funding dried up and private industry moved in to take products to market.
Arthur Rock had come into Xerox in 1969, on the back of an investment into Scientific Data Systems. While on the board of Xerox, he got to see the advancements being made at PARC. PARC hired some of the oNLine System (NLS) team who worked to help ship the Xerox Alto in 1973, shipping a couple thousand computers. They followed that up with the Xerox Star in 1981, selling about 20,000. But PARC had been at it the whole time, inventing all kinds of goodness.
And so always thinking of the next computer, Apple started the Lisa project in 1978, the year after the release of the Apple II, when profits were just starting to roll in.
Story has it that Steve Jobs secured a visit to PARC and made out the back with the idea for a windowing personal computer GUI complete with a desktop metaphor. But not so fast. Apple had already begun the Lisa and Macintosh projects before Jobs visited Xerox. And after the Alto was shown off internally at Xerox in 1977, complete with Mother of All Demo-esque theatrics on stages using remote computers. They had the GUI, the mouse, and networking - while the other computers released that year, the Apple II, Commodore, and TRS-80 were still doing what Dartmouth, the University of Illinois, and others had been doing since the 60s - just at home instead of on time sharing computers.
In other words, enough people in computing had seen the oNLine System from Stanford. The graphical interface was coming and wouldn’t be stopped. The mouse had been written about in scholarly journals. But it was all pretty expensive. The visits to PARC, and hiring some of the engineers, helped the teams at Apple figure out some of the problems they didn’t even know they had. They helped make things better and they helped the team get there a little quicker. But by then the coming evolution in computing was inevitable.
Still, the Xerox Star was considered a failure. But Apple said “hold my beer” and got to work on a project that would become the Lisa. It started off simply enough: some ideas from Apple executives like Steve Jobs and then 10 people, led by Ken Rothmuller, to develop a system with windows and a mouse. Rothmuller got replaced with John Couch, Apple’s 54th employee. Trip Hawkins got a great education in marketing on that team. He would later found Electronic Arts, one of the biggest video game publishers in the world.
Larry Tesler from the Stanford AI Lab and then Xerox PARC joined the team to run the system software team. He’d been on ARPANet since writing Pub an early markup language and was instrumental in the Gypsy Word Processor, Smalltalk, and inventing copy and paste. Makes you feel small to think of some of this stuff.
Bruce Daniels, one of the Zork creators from MIT, joined the team from HP as the software manager.
Wayne Rosing, formerly of Digital and Data General, was brought in to design the hardware. He’d later lead the Sparc team and then become a VP of Engineering at Google.
The team grew. They brought in Bill Dresselhaus as a principal product designer for the look and use and design and even packaging. They started with a user interface and then created the hardware and applications.
Eventually there would be nearly 100 people working on the Lisa project and it would run over $150 million in R&D. After 4 years, they were still facing delays and while Jobs had been becoming more and more involved, he was removed from the project. The personal accounts I’ve heard seem to be closer to other large out of control projects at companies that I’ve seen though.
The Apple II used that MOS 6502 chip. And life was good. The Lisa used the Motorola 68000 at 5 MHz. This was a new architecture to replace the 6800. It was time to go 32-bit.
The Lisa was supposed to ship with between 1 and 2 megabytes of RAM. It had a built-in 12 inch screen that was 720 x 364.
They got to work building applications, releasing LisaWrite, LisaCalc, LisaDraw, LisaGraph, LisaGuide, LisaList, LisaProject, and LisaTerminal. They translated it to British English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
All the pieces were starting to fall into place. But the project kept growing. And delays. Jobs got booted from the Lisa project amidst concerns it was bloated, behind schedule, wasting company resources, and that Jobs’ perfectionism was going to result in a product that could never ship. The cost of the machine was over $10,000.
Thing is, as we’ll get into later, every project went over budget and ran into delays for the next decade. Great ideas could then be capitalized on by others - even if a bit watered down. Some projects need to teach us how not to do projects - improve our institutional knowledge about the project or product discipline. That didn’t exactly happen with Lisa.
We see times in the history of computing and technology for that matter, when a product is just too far advanced for its time. That would be the Xerox Alto. As costs come down, we can then bring ideas to a larger market. That should have been the Lisa. But it wasn’t. While nearly half the cost of a Xerox Star, less than half the number of units were sold.
Following the release of the Lisa, we got other desktop metaphors and graphical interfaces. Agat out of the Soviet Union, SGI, Visi (makers of Visicalc), GEM from Digital Research, DeskMate from Tandy, Amiga Intuition, Acorn Master Compact, the Arthur for the ARM, and the initial releases of Microsoft Windows. By the late 1980s the graphical interface was ubiquitous and computers were the easiest to use for the novice than they’d ever been before.
But developers didn’t flock to the system as they’d done with the Apple II. You needed a specialized development workstation so why would they? People didn’t understand the menuing system yet. As someone who’s written command line tools, sometimes they’re just easier than burying buttons in complicated graphical interfaces.
“I’m not dead yet… just… badly burned. Or sick, as it were.” Apple released the Lisa 2 in 1984. It went for about half the price and was a little more stable. One reason was that the Twiggy disk drives Apple built for the Lisa were replaced with Sony microfloppy drives. This looked much more like what we’d get with the Mac, only with expansion slots.
The end of the Lisa project was more of a fizzle. After the original Mac was released, Lisa shipped as the Macintosh XL, for $4,000. Sun Remarketing built MacWorks to emulate the Macintosh environment and that became the main application of the Macintosh XL.
Sun Remarketing bought 5,000 of the Mac XLs and improved them somewhat. The last of the 2,700 Lisa computers were buried in a landfill in Utah in 1989. As the whole project had been, they ended up being a write-off. Apple traded them out for a deep discount on the Macintosh Plus. By then, Steve Jobs was long gone, Apple was all about the Mac and the next year General Magic would begin ushering in the era of mobile devices.
The Lisa was a technical marvel at the time and a critical step in the evolution of the desktop metaphor, then nearly twenty years old, beginning at Stanford on NASA and ARPA grants, evolving further at PARC when members of the team went there, and continuing on at Apple. The lessons learned in the Lisa project were immense and helped inform the evolution of the next project, the Mac. But might the product have actually gained traction in the market if Steve Jobs had not been telling people within Apple and outside that the Mac was the next thing, while the Apple II line was still accounting for most of the revenue of the company? There’s really no way to tell. The Mac used a newer Motorola 68000 at nearly 8 megahertz so was faster, the OS was cleaner, the machine was prettier. It was smaller, boxier like the newer Japanese cars at the time. It was just better. But it probably couldn’t have been if not for the Lisa.
Lisa was slower than it was supposed to be. The operating system tended to be fragile. There were recalls. Steve Jobs was never afraid to cannibalize a product to make the next awesome thing. He did so with Lisa. If we step back and look at the Lisa as an R&D project, it was a resounding success. But as a public company, the shareholders didn’t see it that way at the time.
So next time there’s an R&D project running amuck, think about this. The Lisa changed the world, ushering in the era of the graphical interface. All for the low cost of $50 million after sales of the device are taken out of it. But they had to start anew with the Mac and only bring in the parts that worked. They built out too much technical debt while developing the product to do anything else. While it can be painful - sometimes it’s best to start with a fresh circuit board and a blank command line editor. Then we can truly step back and figure out how we want to change the world.
There was a nexus of Digital Research and Xerox PARC, along with Stanford and Berkeley in the Bay Area. The rise of the hobbyists and the success of Apple attracted some of the best minds in computing to Apple. This confluence was about to change the world. One of those brilliant minds that landed at Apple started out as a technical writer.
Apple hired Jef Raskin as their 31st employee, to write the Apple II manual. He quickly started harping on people to build a computer that was easy to use. Mike Markkula wanted to release a gaming console or a cheap computer that could compete with the Commodore and Atari machines at the time. He called the project “Annie.”
The project began with Raskin, but he had a very different idea than Markkula’s. He summed it up in an article called “Computers by the Millions” that wouldn’t see publication until 1982. His vision was closer to his PhD dissertation, bringing computing to the masses. For this, he envisioned a menu driven operating system that was easy to use and inexpensive. Not yet a GUI in the sense of a windowing operating system and so could run on chips that were rapidly dropping in price. He planned to use the 6809 chip for the machine and give it a five inch display.
He didn’t tell anyone that he had a PhD when he was hired, as the team at Apple was skeptical of academia. Jobs provided input, but was off working on the Lisa project, which used the 68000 chip. So they had free reign over what they were doing.
Raskin quickly added Joanna Hoffman for marketing. She was on leave from getting a PhD in archaeology at the University of Chicago and was the marketing team for the Mac for over a year. They also added Burrell Smith, employee #282 from the hardware technician team, to do hardware. He’d run with the Homebrew Computer Club crowd since 1975 and had just strolled into Apple one day and asked for a job.
Raskin also brought in one of his students from the University of California San Diego who was taking a break from working on his PhD in neurochemistry. Bill Atkinson became employee 51 at Apple and joined the project. They pulled in Andy Hertzfeld, who Steve Jobs hired when Apple bought one of his programs as he was wrapping up his degree at Berkeley and who’d been sitting on the Apple services team and doing Apple III demos.
They added Larry Kenyon, who’d worked at Amdahl and then on the Apple III team. Susan Kare came in to add art and design. They, along with Chris Espinosa - who’d been in the garage with Jobs and Wozniak working on the Apple I, ended up comprising the core team.
Over time, the team grew. Bud Tribble joined as the manager for software development. Jerrold Manock, who’d designed the case of the Apple II, came in to design the now-iconic Macintosh case. The team would eventually expand to include Bob Belleville, Steve Capps, George Crow, Donn Denman, Bruce Horn, and Caroline Rose as well. It was still a small team. And they needed a better code name. But chronologically let’s step back to the early project.
Raskin chose his favorite Apple, the Macintosh, as the codename for the project. As far as codenames go it was a pretty good one. So their mission would be to ship a machine that was easy to use, would appeal to the masses, and be at a price point the masses could afford. They were looking at 64k of memory, a Motorola 6809 chip, and a 256 bitmap display. Small, light, and inexpensive.
Jobs’ relationship with the Lisa team was strained and he was taken off of that and he started moving in on the Macintosh team. It was quickly the Steve Jobs show.
Having seen what could be done with the Motorola 68000 chip on the Lisa team, Jobs had them redesign the board to work with that. After visiting Xerox PARC at Raskin’s insistence, Jobs finally got the desktop metaphor and true graphical interface design.
Xerox had not been quiet about the work at PARC. Going back to 1972 there were even television commercials. And Raskin had done time at PARC while on sabbatical from Stanford. Information about Smalltalk had been published and people like Bill Atkinson were reading about it in college. People had been exposed to the mouse all around the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s or read Engelbart’s scholarly works on it. Many of the people that worked on these projects had doctorates and were academics. They shared their research as freely as love was shared during that counter-culture time. Just as it had passed from MIT to Dartmouth and then in the back of Bob Albrecht’s VW had spread around the country in the 60s. That spirit of innovation and the constant evolutions over the past 25 years found their way to Steve Jobs.
He saw the desktop metaphor and mouse and fell in love with it, knowing they could build one for less than the $400 unit Xerox had. He saw how an object-oriented programming language like Smalltalk made all that possible. The team was already on their way to the same types of things and so Jobs told the people at PARC about the Lisa project, but not yet about the Mac. In fact, he was as transparent as anyone could be. He made sure they knew how much he loved their work and disclosed more than I think the team planned on him disclosing about Apple.
This is the point where Larry Tesler and others realized that the group of rag-tag garage-building Homebrew hackers had actually built a company that had real computer scientists and was on track to changing the world. Tesler and some others would end up at Apple later - to see some of their innovations go to a mass market. Steve Jobs at this point totally bought into Raskin’s vision. Yet he still felt they needed to make compromises with the price and better hardware to make it all happen.
Raskin couldn’t make the kinds of compromises Jobs wanted. He also had an immunity to the now-infamous Steve Jobs reality distortion field and they clashed constantly. So eventually Raskin the project just when it was starting to take off. Raskin would go on to work with Canon to build his vision, which became the Canon CAT.
With Raskin gone, and armed with a dream team of mad scientists, they got to work, tirelessly pushing towards shipping a computer they all believed would change the world. Jobs brought in Fernandez to help with projects like the macOS and later HyperCard. Wozniak had a pretty big influence over Raskin in the early days of the Mac project and helped here and there withe the project, like with the bit-serial peripheral bus on the Mac.
Steve Jobs wanted an inexpensive mouse that could be manufactured en masse. Jim Yurchenco from Hovey-Kelley, later called Ideo, got the task - given that trusted engineers at Apple had full dance cards. He looked at the Xerox mouse and other devices around - including trackballs in Atari arcade machines. Those used optics instead of mechanical switches. As the ball under the mouse rolled beams of light would be interrupted and the cost of those components had come down faster than the technology in the Xerox mouse. He used a ball from a roll-on deodorant stick and got to work. The rest of the team designed the injection molded case for the mouse. That work began with the Lisa and by the time they were done, the price was low enough that every Mac could get one.
Armed with a mouse, they figured out how to move windows over the top of one another, Susan Kare designed iconography that is a bit less 8-bit but often every bit as true to form today. Learning how they wanted to access various components of the desktop, or find things, they developed the Finder. Atkinson gave us marching ants, the concept of double-clicking, the lasso for selecting content, the menu bar, MacPaint, and later, HyperCard.
It was a small team, working long hours. Driven by a Jobs for perfection. Jobs made the Lisa team the enemy. Everything not the Mac just sucked. He took the team to art exhibits. He had the team sign the inside of the case to infuse them with the pride of an artist. He killed the idea of long product specifications before writing code and they just jumped in, building and refining and rebuilding and rapid prototyping. The team responded well to the enthusiasm and need for perfectionism.
The Mac team was like a rebel squadron. They were like a start-up, operating inside Apple. They were pirates. They got fast and sometimes harsh feedback. And nearly all of them still look back on that time as the best thing they’ve done in their careers.
As IBM and many learned the hard way before them, they learned a small, inspired team, can get a lot done. With such a small team and the ability to parlay work done for the Lisa, the R&D costs were minuscule until they were ready to release the computer. And yet, one can’t change the world over night. 1981 turned into 1982 turned into 1983.
More and more people came in to fill gaps. Collette Askeland came in to design the printed circuit board. Mike Boich went to companies to get them to write software for the Macintosh. Berry Cash helped prepare sellers to move the product. Matt Carter got the factory ready to mass produce the machine. Donn Denman wrote MacBASIC (because every machine needed a BASIC back then). Martin Haeberli helped write MacTerminal and Memory Manager. Bill Bull got rid of the fan. Patti King helped manage the software library. Dan Kottke helped troubleshoot issues with mother boards. Brian Robertson helped with purchasing. Ed Riddle designed the keyboard. Linda Wilkin took on documentation for the engineering team. It was a growing team. Pamela Wyman and Angeline Lo came in as programmers. Hap Horn and Steve Balog as engineers.
Jobs had agreed to bring in adults to run the company. So they recruited 44 years old hotshot CEO John Sculley to change the world as their CEO rather than selling sugar water at Pepsi. Scully and Jobs had a tumultuous relationship over time. While Jobs had made tradeoffs on cost versus performance for the Mac, Sculley ended up raising the price for business reasons.
Regis McKenna came in to help with the market campaign. He would win over so much trust that he would later get called out of retirement to do damage control when Apple had an antenna problem on the iPhone. We’ll cover Antenna-gate at some point. They spearheaded the production of the now-iconic 1984 Super Bowl XVIII ad, which shows woman running from conformity and depicted IBM as the Big Brother from George Orwell’s book, 1984.
Two days after the ad, the Macintosh 128k shipped for $2,495. The price had jumped because Scully wanted enough money to fund a marketing campaign. It shipped late, and the 128k of memory was a bit underpowered, but it was a success. Many of the concepts such as a System and Finder, persist to this day. It came with MacWrite and MacPaint and some of the other Lisa products were soon to follow, now as MacProject and MacTerminal. But the first killer app for the Mac was Microsoft Word, which was the first version of Word ever shipped.
Every machine came with a mouse. The machines came with a cassette that featured a guided tour of the new computer. You could write programs in MacBASIC and my second language, MacPascal.
They hit the initial sales numbers despite the higher price. But over time that bit them on sluggish sales. Despite the early success, the sales were declining. Yet the team forged on. They introduced the Apple LaserWriter at a whopping $7,000. This was a laser printer that was based on the Canon 300 dpi engine. Burrell Smith designed a board and newcomer Adobe knew laser printers, given that the founders were Xerox alumni. They added postscript, which had initially been thought up while working with Ivan Sutherland and then implemented at PARC, to make for perfect printing at the time.
The sluggish sales caused internal issues. There’s a hangover when we do something great. First there were the famous episodes between Jobs, Scully, and the board of directors at Apple. Scully seems to have been portrayed by many to be either a villain or a court jester of sorts in the story of Steve Jobs. Across my research, which began with books and notes and expanded to include a number of interviews, I’ve found Scully to have been admirable in the face of what many might consider a petulant child. But they all knew a brilliant one.
But amidst Apple’s first quarterly loss, Scully and Jobs had a falling out. Jobs tried to lead an insurrection and ultimately resigned. Wozniak had left Apple already, pointing out that the Apple II was still 70% of the revenues of the company. But the Mac was clearly the future.
They had reached a turning point in the history of computers. The first mass marketed computer featuring a GUI and a mouse came and went. And so many others were in development that a red ocean was forming. Microsoft released Windows 1.0 in 1985. Acorn, Amiga, IBM, and others were in rapid development as well.
I can still remember the first time I sat down at a Mac. I’d used the Apple IIs in school and we got a lab of Macs. It was amazing. I could open a file, change the font size and print a big poster. I could type up my dad’s lyrics and print them. I could play SimCity. It was a work of art. And so it was signed by the artists that brought it to us:
Peggy Alexio, Colette Askeland, Bill Atkinson, Steve Balog, Bob Belleville, Mike Boich, Bill Bull, Matt Carter, Berry Cash, Debi Coleman, George Crow, Donn Denman, Christopher Espinosa, Bill Fernandez, Martin Haeberli, Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Rod Holt, Bruce Horn, Hap Horn, Brian Howard, Steve Jobs, Larry Kenyon, Patti King, Daniel Kottke, Angeline Lo, Ivan Mach, Jerrold Manock, Mary Ellen McCammon, Vicki Milledge, Mike Murray, Ron Nicholson Jr., Terry Oyama, Benjamin Pang, Jef Raskin, Ed Riddle, Brian Robertson, Dave Roots, Patricia Sharp, Burrell Smith, Bryan Stearns, Lynn Takahashi, Guy "Bud" Tribble, Randy Wigginton, Linda Wilkin, Steve Wozniak, Pamela Wyman and Laszlo Zidek.
Steve Jobs left to found NeXT. Some, like George Crow, Joanna Hoffman, and Susan Care, went with him. Bud Tribble would become a co-founder of NeXT and then the Vice President of Software Technology after Apple purchased NeXT.
Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld would go on to co-found General Magic and usher in the era of mobility. One of the best teams ever assembled slowly dwindled away. And the oncoming dominance of Windows in the market took its toll.
It seems like every company has a “lost decade.” Some like Digital Equipment don’t recover from it. Others, like Microsoft and IBM (who has arguably had a few), emerge as different companies altogether. Apple seemed to go dormant after Steve Jobs left. They had changed the world with the Mac. They put swagger and an eye for design into computing. But in the next episode we’ll look at that long hangover, where they were left by the end of it, and how they emerged to become to change the world yet again.
In the meantime, Walter Isaacson weaves together this story about as well as anyone in his book Jobs. Steven Levy brilliantly tells it in his book Insanely Great. Andy Hertzfeld gives some of his stories at folklore.org. And countless other books, documentaries, podcasts, blog posts, and articles cover various aspects as well. The reason it’s gotten so much attention is that where the Apple II was the watershed moment to introduce the personal computer to the mass market, the Macintosh was that moment for the graphical user interface.
Steve Jobs had an infamous split with the board of directors of Apple and left the company shortly after the release of the original Mac. He was an innovator who at 21 years old had started Apple in the garage with Steve Wozniak and at 30 years old while already plenty wealthy felt he still had more to give and do. We can say a lot of things about him but he was arguably one of the best product managers ever.
He told Apple he’d be taking some “low-level staffers” and ended up taking Rich Page, Bud Tribble, Dan'l Lewin, George Crow, and Susan Barnes to be the CFO. They also took Susan Kare and Joanna Hoffman. had their eyes on a computer that was specifically targeting higher education. They wanted to build computers for researchers and universities.
Companies like CDC and Data General had done well in Universities. The team knew there was a niche that could be carved out there. There were some gaps with the Mac that made it a hard sell in research environments. Computer scientists needed object-oriented programming and protected memory. Having seen the work at PARC on object-oriented languages, Jobs knew the power and future-proof approach.
Unix System V had branched a number of times and it was a bit more of a red ocean than I think they realized. But Jobs put up $7 million of his own money to found NeXT Computer. He’d add another $5 million and Ross Perot would add another $20 million. The pay bands were one of the most straight-forward of any startup ever founded. The senior staff made $75,000 and everyone else got $50,000. Simple.
Ironically, so soon after the 1984 Super Bowl ad where Jobs based IBM, they hired the man who designed the IBM logo, Paul Rand, to design a logo for NeXT. They paid him $100,000 flat. Imagine the phone call when Jobs called IBM to get them to release Rand from a conflict of interest in working with them.
They released the first computer in 1988. The NeXT Computer, as it was called, was expensive for the day, coming in at $6,500. It sported a Motorola 68030 CPU and clocked in at a whopping 25 MHz. And it came with a special operating system called NeXTSTEP.
NeXTSTEP was based on the Mach kernel with some of the source code coming from BSD. If we go back a little, Unix was started at Bell Labs in 1969 and by the late 70s had been forked from Unix System V to BSD, Unix version 7, and PWB - with each of those resulting in other forks that would eventually become OpenBSD, SunOS, NetBSD, Solaris, HP-UX, Linux, AIX, and countless others.
Mach was developed at Carnegie Mellon University and is one of the earliest microkernels. For Mach, Richard Rashid (who would later found Microsoft Research) and Avie Tevanian, were looking specifically to distributed computing. And the Mach project was kicked off in 1985, the same year Jobs left Apple.
Mach was backwards-compatible to BSD 4.2 and so could run a pretty wide variety of software. It allowed for threads, or units of execution and tasks or objects that enabled threads. It provided support for messages, which for object oriented languages are typed data objects that fall outside the scope of tasks and threads and then a protected message queue, to manage the messages between tasks and rights of access. They stood it up on a DEC VAX and released it publicly in 1987.
Here’s the thing, Unix licensing from Bell Labs was causing problems. So it was important to everyone that the license be open. And this would be important to NeXT as well. NeXT needed a next-generation operating system and so Avi Tevanian was recruited to join NeXT as the Vice President of Software Engineering. There, he designed NeXTSTEP with a handful of engineers.
The computers had custom boards and were fast. And they were a sleek black like nothing I’d seen before. But Bill Gates was not impressed claiming that “If you want black, I’ll get you a can of paint.” But some people loved the machines and especially some of the tools NeXT developed for programmers.
They got a factory to produce the machines and it only needed to crank out 100 a month as opposed to the thousands it was built to produce. In other words, the price tag was keeping universities from buying the machines. So they pivoted a little. They went up-market with the NeXTcube in 1990, which ran NeXTSTEP, OPENSTEP, or NetBSD and came with the Motorola 68040 CPU. This came machine in at $8,000 to almost $16,000. It came with a hard drive. For the lower end of the market they also released the NeXTstation in 1990, which shipped for just shy of $5,000.
The new models helped but by 1991 they had to lay off 5 percent of the company and another 280 by 1993. That’s when the hardware side got sold to Canon so NeXT could focus exclusively on NeXTSTEP. That is, until they got acquired by Apple in 1997.
By the end, they’d sold around 50,000 computers. Apple bought NeXT for $429 million and 1.5 million shares of Apple stock, trading at 22 cents at the time, which was trading at $17 a share so worth another $25 and a half million dollars. That makes the deal worth $454 million or $9,080 per machine NeXT had ever built. But it wasn’t about the computer business, which had already been spun down. It was about Jobs and getting a multi-tasking, object-oriented, powerhouse of an operating system, the grandparent of OS X - and the derivative macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS forks.
The work done at NeXT has had a long-term impact on the computer industry as a whole. For one, the spinning pinwheel on a Mac. And the Dock. And the App Store. And Objective-C. But also Interface Builder as an IDE was revolutionary. Today we use Xcode. But many of the components go back all the way. And so much more.
After the acquisition, NeXT became Mac OS X Server in 1999 and by 2001 was Mac OS X. The rest there is history. But the legacy of the platform is considerable. Just on NeXTSTEP we had a few pretty massive successes.
Tim Berners-Lee developed the first web browser WorldWideWeb on NeXTSTEP for a NeXT . Other browsers for other platforms would come but his work became the web as we know it today. The machine he developed the web on is now on display at the National Museum of Science and Media in the UK.
We also got games like Quake, Heretic, Stife, and Doom from Interface Builder. And webobjects. And the people.
Tevanian came with NeXT to Apple as the Senior Vice President of Software Engineering. Jobs became an advisor, then CEO. Craig Federighi came with the acquisition as well - now Apple’s VP of software engineering. And I know dozens of others who came in from NeXT and helped reshape the culture at Apple.
Next.com still redirects to Apple.com. It took three years to ship that first computer at NeXT. It took 2 1/2 years to develop the iPhone. The Apple II, iPod, iPad, and first iMac were much less. Nearly 5 years for the original Mac. Some things take a little more time to flush out than others. Some need the price of components or new components to show up before you know it can be insanely great. Some need false starts like the Steve Jobs Steve Jobs famously said Apple wanted to create a computer in a book in 1983. That finally came out with the release of the iPad in 2010, 27 years later.
And so the final component of the Apple acquisition of NeXT to mention is Steve Jobs himself. He didn’t initially come in. He’d just become a billionaire off Pixar and was doing pretty darn well. His arrival back at Apple signified the end of a long draught for the company and all those products we mentioned and the iTunes music store and the App Store (both initially built on WebObjects) would change the way we consume content forever. His impact was substantial. For one, after factoring stock splits, the company might still be trading at .22 cents a share, which is what it would be today with all that. Instead they’re the most highly valued company in the world. But that pales in comparison to the way he and his teams and that relentless eye to product and design has actually changed the world. And the way his perspectives on privacy help protect us today, long after he passed.
The heroes journey (as described is a storytelling template that follows a hero from disgrace, to learn the mistakes of their past and reinvent themselves amidst a crisis throughout a grand adventure, and return home transformed. NeXT and Pixar represent part of that journey here. Which makes me wonder: what is my own Monomyth? Where will I return to? What is or was my abyss? These can be large or small. And while very few people in the world will have one like Steve Jobs did, we should all reflect on ours and learn from them. And yes that was plural because life is not so simple that there is one.
The past, and our understanding of it, predicts the future. Good luck on your journey.
Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985. He co-founded NeXT Computers and took Pixar public. He then returned to Apple as the interim CEO in 1997 at a salary of $1 per year. Some of the early accomplishments on his watch were started before he got there. But turning the company back around was squarely on him and his team.
By the end of 1997, Apple moved to a build-to-order manufacturing powered by an online store built on WebObjects, the NeXT application server. They killed off a number of models, simplifying the lineup of products and also killed the clone deals, ending licensing of the operating system to other vendors who were at times building sub-par products.
And they were busy. You could feel the frenetic pace. They were busy at work weaving the raw components from NeXT into an operating system that would be called Mac OS X. They announced a partnership that would see Microsoft invest $150 million into Apple to settle patent disputes but that Microsoft would get Internet Explorer bundled on the Mac and give a commitment to release Office for the Mac again. By then, Apple had $1.2 billion in cash reserves again, but armed with a streamlined company that was ready to move forward - but 1998 was a bottoming out of sorts, with Apple only doing just shy of $6 billion in revenue. To move forward, they took a little lesson from the past and released a new all-in-one computer. One that put the color back into that Apple logo. Or rather removed all the colors but Aqua blue from it.
The return of Steve Jobs invigorated many, such as Johnny Ive who is reported to have had a resignation in his back pocket when he met Jobs. Their collaboration led to a number of innovations, with a furious pace starting with the iMac. The first iMacs were shaped like gumdrops and the color of candy as well. The original Bondi blue had commercials showing all the cords in a typical PC setup and then the new iMac, “as unPC as you can get.” The iMac was supposed to be to get on the Internet. But the ensuing upgrades allowed for far more than that.
The iMac put style back into Apple and even computers. Subsequent releases came in candy colors like Lime, Strawberry, Blueberry, Grape, Tangerine, and later on Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power. The G3 chipset bled out into other more professional products like a blue and white G3 tower, which featured a slightly faster processor than the beige tower G3, but a much cooler look - and very easy to get into compared to any other machine on the market at the time. And the Clamshell laptops used the same design language. Playful, colorful, but mostly as fast as their traditional PowerBook counterparts.
But the team had their eye on a new strategy entirely. Yes, people wanted to get online - but these computers could do so much more. Apple wanted to make the Mac the Digital Hub for content. This centered around a technology that had been codeveloped from Apple, Sony, Panasonic, and others called IEEE 1394. But that was kinda’ boring so we just called it Firewire.
Begun in 1986 and originally started by Apple, Firewire had become a port that was on most digital cameras at the time. USB wasn’t fast enough to load and unload a lot of newer content like audio and video from cameras to computers. But I can clearly remember that by the year 1999 we were all living as Jobs put it in a “new emerging digital lifestyle.” This led to a number of releases from Apple. One was iMovie. Apple included it with the new iMac DV model for free. That model dumped the fan (which Jobs never liked even going back to the early days of Apple) as well as FireWire and the ability to add an AirPort card. Oh, and they released an AirPort base station in 1999 to help people get online easily. It is still one of the simplest router and wi-fi devices I’ve ever used. And was sleek with the new Graphite design language that would take Apple through for years on their professional devices.
iMovie was a single place to load all those digital videos and turn them into something else. And there was another format on the rise, MP3. Most everyone I’ve ever known at Apple love music. It’s in the DNA of the company, going back to Wozniak and Jobs and their love of musicians like Bob Dylan in the 1970s. The rise of the transistor radio and then the cassette and Walkman had opened our eyes to the democratization of what we could listen to as humans. But the MP3 format, which had been around since 1993, was on the rise. People were ripping and trading songs and Apple looked at a tool called Audion and another called SoundJam and decided that rather than Sherlock (or build that into the OS) that they would buy SoundJam in 2000. The new software, which they called iTunes, allowed users to rip and burn CDs easily. Apple then added iPhoto, iWeb, and iDVD. For photos, creating web sites, and making DVDs respectively. The digital hub was coming together.
But there was another very important part of that whole digital hub strategy. Now that we had music on our computers we needed something more portable to listen to that music on. There were MP3 players like the Diamond Rio out there, and there had been going back to the waning days of the Digital Equipment Research Lab - but they were either clunky or had poor design or just crappy and cheap. And mostly only held an album or two. I remember walking down that isle at Fry’s about once every other month waiting and hoping. But nothing good ever came.
That is, until Jobs and the Apple hardware engineering lead Job Rubinstein found Tony Fadell. He had been at General Magic, you know, the company that ushered in mobility as an industry. And he’d built Windows CE mobile devices for Philips in the Velo and Nino. But when we got him working with Jobs, Rubinstein, and Johnny Ive on the industrial design front, we got one of the most iconic devices ever made: the iPod.
And the iPod wasn’t all that different on the inside from a Newton. Blasphemy I know. It sported a pair of ARM chips and Ive harkened back to simpler times when he based the design on a transistor radio. Attention to detail and the lack thereof in the Sony Diskman propelled Apple to sell more than 400 million iPods to this day. By the time the iPod was released in 2001, Apple revenues had jumped to just shy of $8 billion but dropped back down to $5.3. But everything was about to change. And part of that was that the iPod design language was about to leak out to the rest of the products with white iBooks, white Mac Minis, and other white devices as a design language of sorts.
To sell all those iDevices, Apple embarked on a strategy that seemed crazy at the time. They opened retail stores. They hired Ron Johnson and opened two stores in 2001. They would grow to over 500 stores, and hit a billion in sales within three years. Johnson had been the VP of merchandising at Target and with the teams at Apple came up with the idea of taking payment without cash registers (after all you have an internet connected device you want to sell people) and the Genius Bar.
And generations of devices came that led people back into the stores. The G4 came along - as did faster RAM. And while Apple was updating the classic Mac operating system, they were also hard at work preparing NeXT to go across the full line of computers. They had been working the bugs out in Rhapsody and then Mac OS X Server, but the client OS, Codenamed Kodiak, went into beta in 2000 and then was released as a dual-boot option in Cheetah, in 2001. And thus began a long line of big cats, going to Puma then Jaguar in 2002, Panther in 2003, Tiger in 2005, Leopard in 2007, Snow Leopard in 2009, Lion in 2011, Mountain Lion in 2012 before moving to the new naming scheme that uses famous places in California.
Mac OS X finally provided a ground-up, modern, object-oriented operating system. They built the Aqua interface on top of it. Beautiful, modern, sleek. Even the backgrounds! The iMac would go from a gumdrop to a sleek flat panel on a metal stand, like a sunflower. Jobs and Ive are both named on the patents for this as well as many of the other inventions that came along in support of the rapid device rollouts of the day.
Jaguar, or 10.2, would turn out to be a big update. They added Address Book, iChat - now called Messages, and after nearly two decades replaced the 8-bit Happy Mac with a grey Apple logo in 2002. Yet another sign they were no longer just a computer company. Some of these needed a server and storage so Apple released the Xserve in 2002 and the Xserve RAID in 2003. The pro devices also started to transition from the grey graphite look to brushed metal, which we still use today.
Many wanted to step beyond just listening to music. There were expensive tools for creating music, like ProTools. And don’t get me wrong, you get what you pay for. It’s awesome. But democratizing the creation of media meant Apple wanted a piece of software to create digital audio - and released Garage Band in 2004. For this they again turned to an acquisition, EMagic, which had a tool called Logic Audio. I still use Logic to cut my podcasts. But with Garage Band they stripped it down to the essentials and released a tool that proved wildly popular, providing an on-ramp for many into the audio engineering space.
Not every project worked out. Apple had ups and downs in revenue and sales in the early part of the millennium. The G4 Cube was released in 2000 and while it is hailed as one of the greatest designs by industrial designers it was discontinued in 2001 due to low sales. But Steve Jobs had been hard at work on something new. Those iPods that were becoming the cash cow at Apple and changing the world, turning people into white earbud-clad zombies spinning those click wheels were about to get an easier way to put media into iTunes and so on the device.
The iTunes Store was released in 2003. Here, Jobs parlayed the success at Apple along with his own brand to twist the arms of executives from the big 5 record labels to finally allow digital music to be sold online. Each song was a dollar. Suddenly it was cheap enough that the music trading apps just couldn’t keep up. Today it seems like everyone just pays a streaming subscription but for a time, it gave a shot in the arm to music companies and gave us all this new-found expectation that we would always be able to have music that we wanted to hear on-demand.
Apple revenue was back up to $8.25 billion in 2004. But Apple was just getting started. The next seven years would see that revenue climb from to $13.9 billion in 2005, $19.3 in 2006, $24 billion in 2007, $32.4 in 2008, $42.9 in 2009, $65.2 in 2010, and a staggering $108.2 in 2011.
After working with the PowerPC chipset, Apple transitioned new computers to Intel chips in 2005 and 2006. Keep in mind that most people used desktops at the time and just wanted fast. And it was the era where the Mac was really open source friendly so having the ability to load in the best the Linux and Unix worlds had to offer for software inside projects or on servers was made all the easier. But Intel could produce chips faster and were moving faster. That Intel transition also helped with what we call the “App Gap” where applications written for Windows could be virtualized for the Mac. This helped the Mac get much more adoption in businesses.
Again, the pace was frenetic. People had been almost begging Apple to release a phone for years. The Windows Mobile devices, the Blackberry, the flip phones, even the Palm Treo. They were all crap in Jobs’ mind. Even the Rockr that had iTunes in it was crap. So Apple released the iPhone in 2007 in a now-iconic Jobs presentation. The early version didn’t have apps, but it was instantly one of the more saught-after gadgets. And in an era where people paid $100 to $200 for phones it changed the way we thought of the devices. In fact, the push notifications and app culture and always on fulfilled the General Magic dream that the Newton never could and truly moved us all into an always-on i (or Internet) culture.
The Apple TV was also released in 2007. I can still remember people talking about Apple releasing a television at the time. The same way they talk about Apple releasing a car. It wasn’t a television though, it was a small whitish box that resembled a Mac Mini - just with a different media-browsing type of Finder. Now it’s effectively an app to bootstrap the media apps on a Mac.
It had been a blistering 10 years. We didn’t even get into Pages, FaceTime, They weren’t done just yet. The iPad was released in 2010. By then, Apple revenues exceeded those of Microsoft. The return and the comeback was truly complete.
Similar technology used to build the Apple online store was also used to develop the iTunes Store and then the App Store in 2008. Here, rather than go to a site you might not trust and download an installer file with crazy levels of permissions.
One place where it’s still a work in progress to this day was iTools, released in 2000 and rebranded to .Mac or dot Mac in 2008, and now called MobileMe. Apple’s vision to sync all of our data between our myriad of devices wirelessly was a work in progress and never met the lofty goals set out. Some services, like Find My iPhone, work great. Others notsomuch. Jobs famously fired the team lead at one point. And while it’s better than it was it’s still not where it needs to be.
Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 at 56 years old. His first act at Apple changed the world, ushering in first the personal computing revolution and then the graphical interface revolution. He left an Apple that meant something. He returned to a demoralized Apple and brought digital media, portable music players, the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple TV, the iMac, the online music store, the online App Store, and so much more. The world had changed in that time, so he left, well, one more thing. You see, when they started, privacy and security wasn’t much of a thing. Keep in mind, computers didn’t have hard drives. The early days of the Internet after his return was a fairly save I or Internet world. But by the time he passed away there there were some troubling trends. The data on our phones and computers could weave together nearly every bit of our life to an outsider. Not only could this lead to identity theft but with the growing advertising networks and machine learning capabilities, the consequences of privacy breaches on Apple products could be profound as a society. He left an ethos behind to build great products but not at the expense of those who buy them. One his successor Tim Cook has maintained.
On the outside it may seem like the daunting 10 plus years of product releases has slowed. We still have the Macbook, the iMac, a tower, a mini, an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple TV. We now have HomeKit, a HomePod, new models of all those devices, Apple silicon, and some new headphones - but more importantly we’ve had to retreat a bit internally and direct some of those product development cycles to privacy, protecting users, shoring up the security model. Managing a vast portfolio of products in the largest company in the world means doing those things isn’t always altruistic. Big companies can mean big law suits when things go wrong. These will come up as we cover the history of the individual devices in greater detail.
The history of computing is full of stories of great innovators. Very few took a second act. Few, if any, had as impactful a first act as either that Steve Jobs had. It wasn’t just him in any of these. There are countless people from software developers to support representatives to product marketing gurus to the people that write the documentation. It was all of them, working with inspiring leadership and world class products that helped as much as any other organization in the history of computing, to shape the digital world we live in today.
Microsoft went from a fledgeling purveyor of a BASIC for the Altair to a force to be reckoned with. The biggest growth hack was when they teamed up with IBM to usher in the rise of the personal computer. They released apps and an operating system and by licensing DOS to anyone (not just IBM) and then becoming the dominant OS they allowed clone makers to rise and thus broke the hold IBM had on the computing industry since the days the big 8 mainframe companies were referred to as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
They were young and bold and grew fast. They were aggressive, taking on industry leaders in different segments, effectively putting CP/M out of business, taking out Lotus, VisiCalc, Novell, Netscape, `and many, many other companies.
Windows 95 and Microsoft Office helped the personal computer become ubiquitous in homes and offices. The team knew about the technical debt they were accruing in order to grow fast. So they began work on projects that would become Windows NT and that kernel would evolve into Windows 2000, phasing out the legacy operating systems. They released Windows Server, Microsoft Exchange, Flight Simulators, maps, and seemed for a time to be poised to take over the world. They even seemed to be about to conquer the weird new smart phone world.
And then something strange happened. They entered into what we can now call a lost decade. Actually there’s nothing strange about it. This happens to nearly every company.
Innovation dropped off. Releases of Windows got buggy. The market share of their mobile operating system fell away. Apple and Android basically took the market away entirely. They let Google take the search market and after they failed to buy Yahoo! they released an uninspired Bing. The MSN subscriptions that once competed with AOL fell away. Google Docs came and was a breath of fresh air. Windows Servers started moving into cloud solutions where Box or Dropbox were replacing filers and Sharepoint became a difficult story to tell.
They copied features from other companies. But were followers - not leaders. And the stock barely moved for a decade, while Apple more than doubled the market cap of Microsoft for a time. What exactly happened here? Some have blamed Steve Ballmer, who replaced Bill Gates who had led the company since 1975 and if we want to include Traf-O-Data - since 1972.
They grew fast and by Y2K there were memes about how rich Bill Gates was. Then a lot changed over the next decade. Windows XP was released in 2001, the same year the first Xbox was released. They launched the Windows Mobile operating system in 2003, planning to continue the whole “rule the operating system” approach. Vista comes along in 2007. Bill Gates retires in 2008. Later that year, Google launches Chrome - which would eat market share away from Microsoft over time. Windows 7 launches in 2009. Microsoft releases Bing in 2009 and Azure in 2010. The Windows phone comes in 2010 as well, and they would buy Skype for $8.5 billion dollars the next year. The tablet Microsoft Surface coming in 2012, the same year the iPad was released.
And yet, there were market forces operating to work against what Microsoft was doing. Google had come roaring out of the dot com bubble bursting and proved how money could be made with search. Yahoo! was slow to respond. As Google’s aspirations became clear by 2008, Ballmer moved to buy them for $20 billion eventually growing the bid to nearly $45 billion - a move that was thwarted but helped to take the attention of the Yahoo! team away from the idea of making money. That was the same year Android and Chrome was released. Meanwhile, Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and were shipping the 3G in 2008, taking the mobile market by storm. By 2010, slow sales of the Windows phone were already spelling the end for Ballmer.
Microsoft had launched Windows CE in 1996, held the smaller Handheld PC market for a time. They took over and owned the operating system market for personal computers and productivity software. They were able to seize a weakened and lumbering IBM to do so. And yet they turned into that lumbering juggernaut of a company. All those products and all the revenues being generated, Microsoft looked unstoppable by the end of the millennium. Then they got big. Like really big. And organizations can be big and stay lean - but they weren’t.
Leaders fought leaders, programmers fled, and the fiefdoms caused them to be slow to jump into new opportunities. Bill Gates had been an intense leader - but the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust case against Microsoft and between that and just managing hyper-growth along the way they lost a focus on customers and instead focused inward. And so by all accounts, the lost decade began in 2001. Vista was supposed to ship in 2003 but pushed all the way back to 2007. Bing was a dud, losing billions out of the gate. By 2011 Google released Chrome OS - an operating system that was basically a web browser bootstrapped on Linux and effectively what Netscape founder Marc Andreesen foreshadowed in a Time piece in the early days of the browser wars.
Kurt Eichenwald of Vanity Fair wrote an article called MICROSOFT’S LOST DECADE in 2012, looking at what led to the lost decade. He pointed out the arrogance and the products that, even though they were initially developed at Microsoft, would be launched by others first. It was Bill Gates who turned down releasing the ebook, which would evolve into the tablet. The article explained that moving timelines around pushed developing new products back in the list of priorities. The Windows and Office divisions were making so much money for the company that they had all the power to make the decisions - even when the industry was moving in another direction.
The original employees got rich when the company went public and much of the spunk left with them. The focus shifted to pushing up the stock price. Ballmer is infamously not a product guy and he became the president of the company in 1998 and moved to CEO in 2000. But Gates stayed on in product. As we see with companies when their stock price starts to fall, the finger pointing begins. Cost cutting begins. The more talented developers can work anywhere - and so companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple were able to fill their ranks with great developers.
When organizations in a larger organization argue, new bureaucracies get formed. Those slow things down by replacing common sense with process. That is good to a point. Like really good to a point. Measure twice, cut once. Maybe even measure three times and cut once. But software doesn’t get built by committees, it gets built by humans. The closer engineers are to humans the more empathy will go into the code. We can almost feel it when we use tools that developers don’t fully understand. And further, developers write less code when they’re in more meetings. Some are good but when there are tiers of supervisors and managers and directors and VPs and Jr and Sr of each, their need to justify their existence leads to more meetings.
The Vanity Fair piece also points out that times changed. He called the earlier employees “young hotshots from the 1980s” who by then were later career professionals and as personal computers became pervasive the way people use them changed. And a generation of people who grew up with computers now interacted with them differently. People were increasingly always online. Managers who don’t understand their users need to release control of products to those who do.
They made the Zune 5 years after the iPod was released and had lit a fire at Apple. Less than two months later, Apple released the iPhone and the Zune was dead in the water, never eclipsing over 5 percent of the market and finally being discontinued in 2012. Ballmer had predicted that all of these Apple products would fail and in a quote from a source in the Vanity Fair article, a former manager at Microsoft said “he is hopelessly out of touch with reality or not listening to the tech staff around him”.
One aspect the article doesn’t go into is the sheer number of products Microsoft was producing. They were competing with practically every big name in technology, from Apple to Oracle to Google to Facebook to Amazon to Salesforce. They’d gobbled up so many companies to compete in so many spaces that it was hard to say what Microsoft really was - and yet the Windows and Office divisions made the lions’ share of the money. They thought they needed to own every part of the ecosystem when Apple went a different route and opened a store to entice developers to go direct to market, making more margin with no acquisition cost to build a great ecosystem.
The Vanity Fair piece ends with a cue from the Steve Jobs biography and to sum it up, Jobs said that Microsoft ended up being run by sales people because they moved the revenue needle - just as he watched it happen with Sculley at Apple. Jobs went on to say Microsoft would continue the course as long as Ballmer was at the helm. Back when they couldn’t ship Vista they were a 60,000 person company. By 2011 when the Steve Jobs biography was published, they were at 90,000 and had just rebounded from layoffs.
By the end of 2012, the iPhone had overtaken Microsoft in sales. Steve Ballmer left as the CEO of Microsoft in 2014 and Satya Nadella replaces him. Under his leadership, half the company would be moved into research later that year. Nadella wrote a book about his experience turning things around called Hit Refresh. Just as the book Microsoft Rebooted told the story of how Ballmer was going to turn things around in 2004 - except Hit Refresh was actually a pretty good book.
And the things seemed to work. The stock price had risen a little in 2014 but since then it’s shot up six times what it was. And all of the pivots to a more cloud-oriented company and many other moves seem to have been started under Ballmer’s regime, just as the bloated company they became started under the Gates regime. Each arguably did what was needed at the time. Let’s not forget the dot com bubble burst at the beginning of the Ballmer era and he had the 2008 financial crises. There be dragons that are micro-economic forces outside anyones control.
But Nadella ran R&D and cloud offerings. He emphasized research - which means innovation. He changed the mission statement to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” He laid out a few strategies, to reinvent productivity and collaboration, power those with Microsoft’s cloud platform, and expand on Windows and gaming. And all of those things have been gangbusters ever since. They bought Mojang in 2014 and so are now the makers of Minecraft. They bought LinkedIn. They finally got Skype better integrated with the company so Teams could compete more effectively with Slack.
Here’s the thing. I knew a lot of people who worked, and many who still work at Microsoft during that Lost Decade. And I think every one of them is really just top-notch. Looking at things as they’re unfolding you just see a weekly “patch Tuesday” increment. Everyone wanted to innovate - wanted to be their best self. And across every company we look at in this podcast, nearly every one has had to go through a phase of a lost few years or lost decade. The ones who don’t pull through can never turn the tide on culture and innovation. The two are linked.
A bloated company with more layers of management inspires a sense of controlling managers who stifle innovation. At face value, the micro-aggressions seem plausible, especially to those younger in their career. We hear phrases like “we need to justify or analyze the market for each expense/initiative” and that’s true or you become a Xerox PARC or Digital Research where so many innovations never get to market effectively. We hear phrases like “we’re too big to do things like that any more” and yup, people running amuck can be dangerous - turns out move fast and break things doesn’t always work out.
We hear “that requires approval” or “I’m their bosses bosses boss” or “you need to be a team player and run this by other leaders” or “we need more process” or “we need a center of excellence for that because too many teams are doing their own thing” or “we need to have routine meetings about this” or “how does that connect to the corporate strategy” or “we’re a public company now so no” or “we don’t have the resources to think about moon shots” or “we need a new committee for that” or “who said you could do that” and all of these taken as isolated comments would be fine here or there. But the aggregate of so many micro-aggressions comes from a place of control, often stemming from fear of change or being left behind and they come at the cost of innovation.
Charles Simonyi didn’t leave Xerox PARC and go to Microsoft to write Microsoft Word to become a cog in a wheel that’s focused on revenue and not changing the world. Microsoft simply got out-innovated due to being crushed under the weight of too many layers of management and so overly exerting control over those capable of building cool stuff. I’ve watched those who stayed be allowed speak publicly again, engage with communities, take feedback, be humble, admit mistakes, and humanize the company. It’s a privilege to get to work with them and I’ve seen results like a change to a graphAPI endpoint one night when I needed a new piece of data.
They aren’t running amuck. They are precise, targeted, and allowed to do what needs to be done. And it’s amazing how a chief molds the way a senior leadership team acts and they mold the way directors direct and they mold the way managers manage and down the line. An aspect of culture is a mission - another is values - and another is behaviors, which make up the culture. And these days I gotta’ say I’m glad to have witnessed a turnaround like they’ve had and every time I talk to a leader or an individual contributor at Microsoft I’m glad to feel their culture coming through.
So here’s where I’d like to leave this. We can all help shape a great culture. Leaders aren’t the only ones who have an impact. We can all innovate. An innovative company isn’t one that builds a great innovative product (although that helps) but instead one who becomes an unstoppable force due to lots of small innovations at every level of the organization. Where are we allowing politics or a need for control and over-centralization stifle others? Let’s change that.