Even two years after I left Apple, I still feel like I celebrate two Christmases: the one I celebrate with my family, and the one in January that we celebrate when Steve Jobs gets up on stage and says: "I have a few things to show you today that I think you'll really like."
When I worked there, the MacWorld speech was always the point at which most of us stopped work and gathered around the screens – there was always a big gathering and a special screen in the restaurant. Work would stop for a while as everyone enjoyed the surprise. And for most of us it was a surprise; only for those in the small teams working on, say, the iPhone or the new release of Apple's office suite iWork would know precisely what was coming; and even they didn't know what the other teams had. And afterwards people talk about it for days; and the staff discount means that there are plenty of orders right after the speech ends.
Only, of course, this year it won't be Steve. It'll be Phil Schiller, Apple's own Vice President of Demos, as we liked to call him, because he'd always be the second guy who'd come out to help Steve out.
I'll still tune in with great anticipation, and while people are already predicting there will be no major announcements, I'm not so sure. Instead, I think this is the first step in proving to the Apple community (and investors) that while Steve's vision is important to Apple, Apple is not Steve, and Apple will not disappear when Steve retires from the company – which he is going to do, sooner or later.
Lots of people are making noise about this change, because they find change unsettling – but Apple's history shows that these kind of changes are common, and once people settle in and get used to the changes, they generally find they had nothing to worry about and that the new Apple is pretty good. We'll probably look back to this event in a couple of years and wonder why we were so worried, too.
The fact is, MacWorld causes all sorts of problems for Apple's workers, and is an expensive proposition for the company to be ready for. It usually meant a bunch of people had to work through the Christmas break to make deadlines, and then get compensatory time later. It's terribly timed to Apple's sales cycle: right after the holiday buying season. Who really wants to announce new stuff then? It tended to force products out on a schedule Apple couldn't affect, so sometimes products missed the deadlines and had to wait for another opportunity like WWDC, or it was pushed out the door early. Early on, Apple needed Macworld and the hype to generate interest and excitement, but it's been pulling back from it for about five years, moving introductions to other venues or to special events – or in many cases, just issuing press releases.
The hype machine was part of the plan to get people interested in Apple again, back when Steve needed to save the company, but today, the need for flexibility in releasing things outweighs the advantage of the large stage Macworld presents Apple.
Apple has proven it can create its own events when it needs them, too, which limits the need to continue supporting and being part of Macworld. Why is Apple pulling out now? The budget was probably the last nail in the coffin, but this one's been in the shop for years, being built for when it was needed.
So it's going to change. But that's life at, and with, Apple. Most people don't know what to think when they find out I spent 17 years at Apple; in a time and an industry where job longevity sometimes seems counted in hours, spending that much time with one company seems almost impossible. When I'm asked how I stayed that long, the only honest answer I can come up with is "one day at a time".
I went to work for Apple in February of 1989 for simple reasons: I loved the technology. It was a company that I felt could make a difference and improve society, and I wanted a chance to help make those changes. I think it's safe to say that most people who go to work for Apple go for similar reasons; Apple is a rare breed of company, one not afraid to try to improve the world around it. It is constantly reinventing itself – five years ago, it was a computer company; today, it's a consumer products company that also makes computers.
When I joined, John Sculley was CEO and the Macintosh II was the state of the art. Few people had heard of the internet, and nobody had URLs or web pages, because they weren't invented until years later. Music came on CDs, videos came on VHS tapes, and the mobile phone was big, expensive and along with pagers more a sign of corporate servitude. Cable systems may have had 15, 20 channels. Your VCR probably had a clock flashing 12:00.
When I left, Steve Jobs was in charge and the Macbook Pro was the best of the best, the iPod was a global success and Apple was reshaping the music industry (much to that industry's dismay).
Life there wasn't always fun. Apple had its problems. I rode the rollercoaster through four different layoffs, and was laid off once in the summer of 1993 – but talked them out of it. I've never regretted that decision, even though I left a stack of money on the table to stay with a company whose future wasn't certain at the time. Why? Because I still believed Apple was worth fighting for.
I came to Apple to work on its Unix products – at the time, a version of Unix called A/UX. I spent the first half of my time there working with a wide array of things, mostly enterprise products – A/UX, Data Access Language, AppleShare, AppleSearch, 3270 and Token Ring. Other than Unix, most of the products were at best marginal successes and generally soon cancelled. AppleSearch was by far my favorite – a technology to help you find content on your server. You may have heard of its grandson, called Spotlight, standard since April 2005 on Mac OS X. Ten years? That's a pretty long gestation for a feature.
AppleSearch was considered an enterprise product, with an enterprise pricetag, and a hardware requirement a generation or so ahead of the computers Apple sold at the time. This was actually a common problem with Apple products during the bad years: really great ideas a bit ahead of the hardware or the market's ability to understand them. Many of the ideas, such as AppleSearch, got recycled later.
I also built and managed things designed to help Apple communicate with its users, or to help users communicate with each other – some of Apple's first websites, Apple's first public mailing list server, Apple's first web forums, used for communicating with beta testers of various products. The list server eventually grew into lists.apple.com, the key communication tool for Apple developers. The forums were the model for what became the Applecare support forums; the goal for these systems to act as a way for users to support each other.
The biggest criticism of the forums is the strong moderation (some would say censorship). I can see both sides of this argument – inside Apple, I always lobbied for more discussion, more disclosure, more transparency. That's not always compatible with Steve's focus on controlling the message. When Steve was fighting to restructure the company and keep it relevant, that control really was necessary. Today, I believe it hurts more than it helps, but there are signs that Apple is slowly opening up and starting to move in these directions. Don't expect Steve ever to blog, though. But maybe his successor will.
My not-so-covert goal was always to find ways to make it easier for Apple and customers to communicate with each other. I spent a lot of time and energy talking to whoever would listen about how Apple could use blogging and other communication techniques to reach out to users.
That kind of informal communication just isn't in Apple's DNA, and won't be as long as Steve is in charge. If you look at how Apple's done, it's hard to argue it's wrong, too. Still, I have hope that some day, this will change and Apple will open up further.
I built a number of custom email systems for Apple. If you get an email from Apple, it probably passed through a system that at one point I built or managed. Those tools have allowed Apple to rethink how it markets its products and how it communicates with its users – they bring the customer and Apple closer together. To me, that's my best accomplishment. It doesn't hurt that these systems have saved a huge number of trees from being pulped into paper along the way.
But Apple doesn't always get it right. Remember the launch of MobileMe in June 2008? It was that rare reminder that Apple could, in fact, royally screw up. When Apple released it, it simply wasn't ready. Early users, myself included, suffered from committing to it before it was ready, and the Mac faithful had a field day complaining about it (legitimately) and using it to declare everything from the upcoming death of Apple to the impending nova of the sun and loss of all life in the solar system.
Not that it wouldn't have felt like that internally. To people who wondered how what the atmosphere would be like inside 1 Infinite Loop, I said: "Just imagine Steve Jobs wandering the hall with a flame thrower in hand, asking random people 'do you work on MobileMe?'"
I never had Steve's flamethrower aimed at me, although I came close a couple of times; all in all, I was close to getting my butt fired three times – and all three times, I probably would have deserved it. I do know friends who did. It wasn't always pleasant – but one thing I give Steve credit for is he held himself to the same high standards he held those around him. He is a perfectionist, and that's what makes him successful and what made Apple succeed. But that kind of perfectionism isn't easy, and isn't done with gentle criticism.
Apple is a place where you work hard, but you get rewarded, and you help create things that are special. I found being part of something that was able and willing to fight to change society a real adrenalin rush. Seeing people react to what we did was even more of one.
In the end, I left to look for new challenges. Even so: would I recommend people work for Apple? Absolutely, if you get the chance. Think about the things that Apple innovation has fostered, from the mouse and the graphical user interface we all take for granted today, all the way to the iPod and the iTunes store and the revolution of music into an online, electronic industry. And the iPhone, which is revolutionising how society works with data while on the move: I can do things with my iPhone that were difficult on a desktop machine five years ago, and were inconceivable in any way 10 years ago. How awesome is that?
Which is why I'll even be watching Phil Schiller on Monday – just as I know hundreds of Apple staff will be too. If Apple keeps turning out the kind of products it's become known for, I'll keep buying them. And if the circumstances were right, I'd go back and do it again. So would most of the ex-Apple people I know. After all, how many companies will you work for that give you an opportunity to be part of something that fundamentally changes society?