By Jason Snell
November 30, 2016 2:42 PM PT
By Request: Anniversaries
Several people wrote in to suggest that I lean in to the fact that I’ve been writing about Apple for two decades and regale you with stories of the olden times. I try not to do this too often, to be honest, because in my mind I’m still the MacUser intern who appalled everyone else at the office with his youth. Where did the time go? You do your job for a few years and then you look up to discover that you’re a witness to history.
Anyway, I don’t have good Steve Jobs stories like my friend James Thomson has good Steve Jobs Stories. But I do have a story about Apple’s perspective on its own history, and how that has evolved over time. And yeah, Steve Jobs is in it.
So in early 1984 when the Mac first arrived, I was in eighth grade. (See, I’m actually very young.) My family didn’t even have an Apple II yet, though we got one the next year. I didn’t lay eyes on a Mac until maybe 1985, when I saw one at the West Coast Computer Faire, which I went to (a three-hour drive each way!) with my best friend Crispin Holland and his dad. All I really remember about the Mac was seeing a game playing on its screen and being boggled by how high-resolution the graphics were, and how shocking it was that they weren’t in color.
My perspective on the Mac’s first decade is skewed by my age and inexperience. I didn’t use a Mac regularly until 1987. My high-school newspaper used Microsoft Word to typeset its articles, and then we ran them over on floppy disks to the photography and yearbook classroom, where there was a LaserWriter we could use to print them out. Then we’d cut out the stories, put wax on the back of them, and put them down on the pages of the paper. (Okay, now I feel old as the hills.)
I didn’t really use a Mac as anything other than a text-entry tool until my sophomore year of college, the fall of 1989, when I joined my college newspaper and immediately fell in love with the Mac. We had a battery of Mac SEs and one Mac IIcx that we used to write (in Word) and lay out (in PageMaker) the paper. By the end of the year I had stopped using my Apple II and worked exclusively on the Macs at the newspaper office. That spring I went down to the UCSD Bookstore and dipped into my own college savings to buy a Mac SE. I was hooked. It was the spring of 1990. The Mac had already existed for six years before I became a Mac user.
I started full-time at MacUser magazine in January of 1994, so professionally I missed the first decade of the Mac entirely. I have no idea if there were celebrations. Those were the System 7 days, and the time of the transition from 680×0 processors to PowerPC processors was going on. Windows was growing in popularity, and Windows 95 lurked around the corner (I can remember the first time I saw Windows, too—on the screen of a Tandy PC clone in a college dorm room. I was not impressed.)
The next decade of the Mac was all about lows and highs. In January 1994 Apple was pushing the Newton and the Mac was sliding—but hadn’t quite slid—into the abyss just yet. In January 2004, the iPod was an enormous success, the Mac was resurgent, and Steve Jobs was large and in charge. (And I now worked at Macworld, because in 1997 the publishers of both magazines decided that Apple was about to go out of business and they needed to cut their losses. Whoops!)
In early 2003, my boss was Rick LePage, who had previously run MacWEEK and had been called in to run Macworld. Rick and I were talking about the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Mac, and one of us suggested that we needed to do a special issue, including an interview with Steve Jobs. When I asked Rick who he thought should interview him, he said I should.
I was not thrilled with this. Remind me to expound at greater length someday about all the ways I tried to avoid Steve Jobs, at Apple events and elsewhere. The guy was scary. (Ask James Thomson.) But Rick was right, I was probably the right person to interview Jobs.
Thus commenced a nearly year-long effort to get Apple to grant us a Steve Jobs interview for the cover of Macworld. I’m serious—the back and forth between us and Apple’s then-media maven Katie Cotton was slow and endless. For a very long time, I assumed we’d never get the interview.
And then, suddenly, in early December, Apple agreed to set up an interview. (I can only imagine what cajoling of Jobs must’ve happened on the other end. Keep in mind, this is the guy who responded to discovering that Apple had kept a museum of past artifacts by saying, “Get it away!” and shipping it all off to Stanford.)
But there were ground rules. Oh yes, there were. First, no questions about future products. Well, of course. Second, no questions about the past.
Wait, what now? The purpose of the interview was literally to talk about the 20th anniversary of the Mac. With no past and no future, what was I left with? A bunch of questions about where Apple was in the present, which didn’t seem very anniversary themed to me, but I’d take what I could get.
The day of my phone call with Steve, I waited in my office for the call. Earlier that day, IDG founder Pat McGovern stopped by the office for his annual visit and delivery of the Christmas bonus to employees. Between him and Jobs, I figure this was the only day in my life I’d chat with two billionaires.
My phone rang. It was Katie, telling me to wait for Steve. This was like getting a phone call from the President of the United States. Finally Steve got on the line, and I stumbled through my questions with him. He very clearly didn’t want to be there. His answers were mostly short, and mostly annoyed. After maybe five minutes, we were done. It was so short that we literally ran every word he said in the magazine. It was a verbatim transcription of the entire phone call.
(A funny aside about the insecurity of Mac users, and how it’s existed since the very beginning of the Mac and will probably exist until the end. One of my questions to Jobs in 2004 was about the popularity of the iPod and if Apple would continue to also focus on the Mac. People were really nervous that the iPod was the future of Apple and the Mac was going to be an afterthought. Jobs’s response was a dismissive “of course.”)
So there was one thing we did leave out of that verbatim interview transcript. When Jobs came back to Apple, he spent a couple of years as “interim CEO” before taking on the permanent CEO mantle formally in 2000. But he’d been back at Apple for nearly eight years at that point, and I wanted my last question to be about his personal future with Apple. I asked him if he expected to continue as CEO indefinitely or if he thought about finishing his work and moving on. I don’t remember how I phrased it, exactly, but it was an open-ended question. I really just expected him to talk about his commitment to Apple and how their work wasn’t done yet, not by a long shot.
Instead, there was a dramatic pause on the line and then Jobs, in a much less cranky and more contemplative voice than I heard in the rest of the interview, said: “Well, you know, like the poet says, we’re all just renting time here on Planet Earth.”
That was it. The end of the interview. And five minutes after we were done, Katie Cotton called back to ask—well, let’s be honest, she demanded—that the last question and answer be stricken from the record. It was a weird interaction, but hey, it was kind of a weird exchange anyway, so I agreed.
It was much later that I realized that my interview with Jobs had taken place after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, but before it was revealed publicly. In his graduation speech at Stanford, he described how he was told to get his affairs in order, which was code for “you’re going to die”—and quickly. But then a biopsy revealed he had an unusual form of pancreatic cancer, and he was able to survive for eight more years.
So here he was, struggling with his cancer diagnosis (and by many accounts, resisting conventional treatment) and having at least briefly thought that his death was imminent. And I ask him about his future.
He handled it well, I think. Like the poet says, every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time. Who knows how long any of us have? But still, if you’re Katie Cotton, you’re trying to suppress any hint that there’s anything wrong with Steve Jobs until the moment you’re ready to reveal the truth. I had no idea what I had stepped into.
Fast forward 10 years. It’s 2014, Steve Jobs has passed away, and it’s the 30th anniversary of the Mac. No laying of groundwork required here: Apple offered me an in-person interview with Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi, and original Mac team member Bud Tribble, in the briefing center at Apple. The past and present were on full display. They all wanted to show Apple’s commitment to the Mac, in the face of the wild success of yet another non-Mac product—the iPhone.
It was a great discussion and I quote from it once or twice a year. It was also a breathtakingly different conversation than the one I had a decade before. So I can say this: the post-Jobs Apple has definitely been more comfortable with discussing the past than during the Jobs era.
One final note about anniversaries. I had always been intrigued by Macworld’s original cover photo, which was Steve Jobs with three Macs. It was reprinted endlessly, often with the Macworld logo cut off! (Bad form.) In the run-up to the 25th anniversary, Rob Schultz (my Art Director at Macworld) discovered that the photographer of the original cover still lived in the Bay Area. We contacted him about reprinting the photo, and he said that he still had the film and we could re-scan it.
That’s the image on the 25th anniversary cover of Macworld. A new scan, at much better quality, of that original iconic image. And in a way, a fitting monument not just to the computer in the photo, but to the man behind the computer.