August 26, 2011, 10:27 AM — Entire books have already been written on the contributions Steve Jobs has made to Apple, the company he helped found 35 years ago. In many ways, the most significant ones took place after 1997, when he returned to Apple from exile and set about to change not just the company but entire industries.
That he did so is testament to the prominent role he has played in shaping our digital lives. And his decision to step aside as Apple CEO, while not a complete surprise given his health issues, nonetheless sent a shudder through the IT landscape when it was announced late Wednesday.
To understand what Jobs has meant to the company, it's important to look back at where Apple was 15 years ago.
The Mac product line in the mid-1990s was labyrinthine, with dozens of models across four vague categories (home, school, work and portable), a series of proprietary ports that flouted standardization and a growing retinue of Mac clones aimed at expanding Apple's markets.
Alongside the hardware confusion were the efforts to create a modern Mac operating system -- a long saga that involved numerous internal projects and joint efforts with other companies that evolved into an initiative called Copland. It never got beyond a very early developer preview and was eventually shelved.
In short, Apple was a mess in 1996. There was even a Web campaign to get Apple fans to buy a few shares of the company to show Wall Street that Apple was still relevant.
Of all the crises at Apple, the biggest was the need for a modern OS that the company could build around -- one that would be able to survive and thrive in the new millennium. Using a technique that has since become common in Silicon Valley, Apple looked for a company with an existing modern operating system onto which the Mac user interface and features could be grafted.
At first, the general consensus was that Apple would acquire a company called Be. Led by former Apple exec Jean-Louise Gasse, Be was developing its own computing platform, called BeOS, and hardware known as Be Boxes.
Instead, Apple bought NeXT, the computing company that Jobs founded after being fired by Apple in 1986.
Soon thereafter, Jobs pulled off a masterful coup, convincing Apple's board to request Gil Amelio's resignation as CEO. Thus began his tenure as interim CEO (or iCEO as he put it), a position that eventually became permanent.
Computerworld Managing News Editor Ken Mingis chats with Keith Shaw about the post-Steve Jobs Apple and what users can expect.