Friday, September 11, 2009

Black Turtleneck and Jeans--Hold the Belt

Steve Jobs returned to the Apple stage this week a weakened man, but for anyone who's felt a connection to the guy and his company for the last 12 years, his appearance lit a match under our rain-soaked (if you're on the east coast) hearts.

The story is pretty familiar by now: mercurial founder returns to reinvent and revitalize flagging company. But it sure didn't seem that way, at least for a while in the beginning of his second go 'round.

As someone who became an Mac/Apple aficionado in the early-to-mid-'90s, witnessing not just the transformation of the Mac itself but the entire reinvention of the Apple brand has been kind of a whirlwind. For a decent portion of the '90s, Apple made mistake after mistake, and the company and its flagship product were regarded as a bit of a joke. The Mac was an endearing yet underpowered and overpriced computer with a paucity of software titles (especially games, a point of which my PC-using friends reminded me constantly). Sticking up for the Mac was kind of a fool's errand, but its largely winning user interface kept me and others in the ranks of its small but rabid following.

In 1995, the company decided to allow other manufacturers to license the Mac OS on their own hardware--a move that birthed a spate of competitors offering faster, cheaper Macs, and injected some much needed life into a platform that seemed doomed to precocious irrelevance. To Mac fans, clones seemed like The Way Forward, a magic ticket to the big show.

Then Jobs showed back up and killed the party. No more clones, he deigned; Apple makes too much money from hardware. For Mac fans, this was a WTF moment of the highest order, before "WTF" was even in the lexicon. Then, oh, what's this? A $150-million deal with Microsoft? Microsoft? Are you kidding? Was nothing sacred to this guy? Jobs seemed inscrutably determined to obliterate his legacy in the blink of an eye--and to take his garage-band company with it.

The rest, as they say, is history (iStory, really). Apple might still be only a minor force when it comes to personal computer market share, but the iMac and iPod long ago took care of the company's underdog tag.

Maybe Obama could take a page from the Jobs playbook. Compromise his immediate popularity in order to cement his legacy by doing something unpopular but wise. In the spirit of Dowd's Less Spocky, More Rocky, how about, er, Less Hobbes, More Jobs? Give it a shot, Barack.

And to Steve, welcome back. You've been missed. You may not be looking too hot these days, but a couple trips to the Sunnyvale In-N-Out should do the trick.

Oh, one more thing--at least you don't look like this guy.

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