The Wilderness Years

Article excerpt

Byline: Leander Kahney; Leander Kahney runs the website Cultofmac.com.

The bleakest time in Jobs's career would turn out to be his most productive.

The decade that Steve Jobs spent away from Apple is often seen as his "wilderness" years, a time when he came close to fading forever from public life. He was forced out of the company he founded. His new company, NeXT, was struggling to say afloat. His other company, Pixar, lurched from business plan to business plan. Yet that decade would become one of the most productive periods of Jobs's amazing life, laying the foundation for the personal, technological, and financial success that would follow. "The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything," he said at a famous Stanford commencement speech in 2005. "It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

In 1985, Steve Jobs wasn't so much fired from Apple as he was chased out. He lost a power struggle with then-CEO John Sculley, whom Jobs had recruited from Pepsi. Sculley was brought into Apple as the grown-up, the "adult supervision." Jobs, just 29, wanted Sculley to run the fast-growing and often chaotic company while Jobs obsessed about new products. He hoped that Sculley would teach him how to eventually take the reins.

Things went swimmingly at first, but Jobs's penchant for meddling put him at odds with Sculley and many others. The crunch came when Jobs's Macintosh division failed to upgrade the original Mac, leading to a deep slide in sales. Consumers viewed it as an expensive toy. There was no killer app to drive sales (desktop publishing wouldn't take off until after Jobs left).

Sculley removed Jobs as head of the Mac division, leading Jobs to retaliate by trying to have him kicked out. Jobs lost.

He quickly set up a rival company in hopes of driving Apple out of business.

Called NeXT (of course), the company began work on a high-end workstation aimed at colleges and universities. Jobs took some of the key Macintosh personnel with him, and was immediately sued by Apple for "nefarious schemes." He persuaded Texas millionaire Ross Perot to invest (Perot was impressed by Jobs after seeing him on a CBS news show) and, later, Japan's Canon.

Jobs spent lavishly at his new company. He splurged $100,000 on a cubist logo designed by the famous graphic designer Paul Rand and built a headquarters office with hardwood floors and a floating glass staircase designed by architect I. M. Pei. He experimented with new management ideas, like letting his staff see all the company's financials, including payroll. Predictably, that turned out to be a mistake. Yet Jobs nevertheless was able to recruit stellar talent to work at the company, including Jon Rubinstein and Avie Tevanian, who would later take on key roles at Apple.

In 1989, after three years in development, Jobs introduced the NeXTcube at a press event in San Francisco. Plagued by delays, the machine was months behind schedule. Asked about being late, Jobs responded, "Late? This computer is five years ahead of its time!"

The NeXTcube sported a distinctive case made of pricey black magnesium. It ran proprietary software that was developed at great expense, and Jobs built a robot factory to churn out 150,000 machines a year. But the $6,500 workstation was too expensive for schools, its initial target market. Only government agencies like the CIA could afford it. In the end, only 50,000 were ever sold.

Meanwhile, Jobs had picked up his other company, Pixar, from George Lucas for $10 million shortly after leaving Apple. Lucas unloaded what was then a fledgling computer-graphics division after being cleaned out in an expensive divorce.

At the time, Pixar was little more than a group of academics who had created an advanced computer-graphics package called RenderMan. Jobs tried to market it as the Pixar Image Computer, a high-end graphics workstation, but only Disney bit. …