August 25, 2011, 11:45 AM — The last time Steve Jobs left Apple permanently, Macs were still earning Apple's reputation for building innovative, well-designed, trend-setting computers that did as much as any other technology to shatter the monolithic control of IT and IBM over the power of computing.
That was in May, 1985, less than a year after Apple's iconic Big Brother commercial imprinted the image of Apple as a rebel in the minds of customers. The image mirrored one Jobs told interviewers he had of himself at the time as a "pirate" attacking a slow, complacent industry with the revolutionary idea that computers should be easy for normal people to use.
After Jobs was pushed out in 1985, former Pepsi exec John Sculley turned Apple into a solid company in financial and organizational terms, nearly ruining it in the process.
The sudden reorganizations, product cancellations, delays, redesigns and purges driven by Jobs' volatility and refusal to accept any results but the ones he envisioned – whether they were possible or not – were gone. Life as an Apple employee became a lot more stable.
Life as an Apple customer slid steadily downhill as Windows began to resemble the Mac and there seemed to be fewer reasons to buy a premium-priced piece of hardware with a steadily shrinking list of business applications with which to use it.
That didn't all change when Jobs came back in '98, but the sense of chaos, demand for disruption and tolerance for risky design decisions (leave out the floppy; eventually people will quit using them anyway) returned.
Jobs hired Sculley because Apple was a small company becoming a big company. It needed a top manager who knew what that meant and how to make it happen.
The guy he chose had all that, but learned all he knew in a business that was so inherently generic and commoditized that it was often impossible to identify competing products once their packaging was removed.
Since returning Jobs has driven at least two major platform conversions in the computer industry, and possibly three. Laptops and smartphones were both gadgets until Jobs started treating them as primary devices and gave customers a reason to as well.
He tried to do the same with tablets, but it's still unclear whether he succeeded or if tablets will remain primarily as media viewers, e-book readers and note-takers – devices secondary to a user's primary computer, not a primary device in itself.
Apple has become so successful so quickly with the iPhone and iPad – which drove a resurgence in everything Apple does or makes – that I wondered in a January blog what the company would have to do to knock itself off such a high pedestal.