The lights dim in John Hancock Hall. As a slide tape synchs in, the music begins to swell: loud, taunchy, pulse-pumping rock dressed in the rhythms of the Flashdance soundtrack and hammered out to a roomful of earnest computer freaks at about 70 decibels of pure throb. "Ap-pul," wails the singer "what a feeling!" Writhing in their seats, members of The Boston Computer Society stomp and whistle and beat their palms like fervent groupies at a Rolling Stones concert. As the tape trails off, one almost expects them to reach for their lighters and hold up tiny flames of awe.
Then the music fades; a single spotlight bathes the stage. Out of the wings walks a tall, sharply dressed man whose slim silhouette sends a fresh ripple of electricity through the crowd. Steven Jobs, 29, cofounder and chairman of the board of Apple Computer Inc., approaches the dais with a small beige case in hand. In the case, as the audience well knows, is a ripe new Macintosh, Apple Computer's $15-million marketing riposte to lBM Corp.'s bold invasion of the $2-billion home-computer market worldwide. Taking an aggressive stance behind the podium, Jobs smiles, his face suddenly illuminated on the giant rear-projection screen mounted behind him. For anyone familiar with the Macintosh sci-fi commercial -- a take-off on George Orwell's 1984 that reportedly cost $400,000 -- there is an immediate and delicious irony: Instead of Big Brother's (read Big Blue's) intimidating visage staring down from the wall, here is Steve Jobs's. He begins to speak.
"The year is 1958," Jobs solemnly intones, "and a small company has succeeded in perfecting a new technology. It is called xerography. IBM has the opportunity to acquire rights to the new technology but elects not to. Thus, Xerox is born."
Jobs reads on like a hyped-up Edward R. Murrow delivering a condensed history of post-chip technology: 1968 -- Digital Equipment Corp. introduces the first viable minicomputer, and IBM dismisses the market; 1978 -- Apple jumps into the home-computer field, IBM ignores it; 1981 -- IBM finally brings out its own personal computer (hisses from the bleachers) and quickly dominates the trade news. Building to his main thrust -- that Macintosh represents a new wave of home hardware -- Jobs can't resist overreaching. His company, he posits, is "the last force for freedom" in the marketplace. The implicit threat: Fight IBM to the last bare desktop or surrender to the forces of evil. Where have you gone Captain America?.
The performance this night in Boston is vintage Jobs: "insanely great " as he likes to call his beloved Mac. Jobs dances nimbly from a broad view of technosociety to the tiniest specs of Mac's circuitry. At times cocky, at others caustic, he brags and bullies his way through a two-hour floor show featuring the young team of Apple architects, who, with Jobs himself doing the downfield blocking, made an end run around the corporate bureaucracy and established Mac's strategic importance. As much as the soul of this new machine dominates the discussion, it is Steve Jobs himself who commands center stage -- the same position he has held, with varying degrees of success and tenacity, since Apple first fell out of the tree seven years ago.
Jobs, in fact, may be the industry's first rock'n'roll superstar: the $200-million valedictorian of Silicon High School's original graduating class. In 1982, Time magazine hailed "America's Risk Takers" with a cover portrait showing Jobs with an arrow-shaped laser beam splitting an apple on his head. Gushed the newsweekly, "[Jobs] practically singlehanded created the personal computer industry." Maybe they didn't get the modifier right -- and perhaps their history was a bit fuzzy (the Altair microcomputer was rolled out as early as 1974) -- but at least the message was succinct. Jobs had become the icon for a whole generation of entrepreneurial whiz kids. Pretty heady stuff for a Los Altos, Calif., native and Reed College dropout who had wandered back from India in the mid-'70s more conversant in metaphysics than in microprocessors.
But Jobs always could talk. Before he and partner Stephen Wozniak teamed up in 1976 to form their home-computer garage band (Woz with the technical wizardry, Jobs with the gumption and the garage), their first interest was blue boxes -- homemade electronic transmitters popular in underground circles for making toll-free long-distance telephone calls. Later, Jobs talked William Hewlett, of Hewlett-Packard Co., into donating some components for an early Apple prototype. With the company still very much in its infancy, Jobs turned his silver tongue on such Valley heavyweights as Nolan Bushnell (Jobs's former boss at Atari Inc.), public relations czar Regis McKenna, and venture capitalist Don Valentine. Valentine reportedly took one look at Jobs's beard and blue jeans and asked McKenna, "Why did you send me this renegade from the human race?" Fortunately for Valentine, no one talked him out of buying in.
Where Jobs's oratory really made a difference, though, was in his determination to put Apple on equal footing with the established giants. He was able to cut competitive purchasing deals, for instance, that were simply unheard of for a "who they?" start-up. And he pounded away at Wozniak to design features into his machine that would attract customers who had about as much innate feel for computers as they did for electron accelerators. He didn't want hardware for a handful of video-game junkies; he wanted equipment that would arm the whole home-computer revolution. Apple thus became the little computer company that thought like a big computer company. And Jobs rose with it: from vice-president and board member in 1977 to director of the Macintosh task force and chairman of the board in '81. More recently, he has presided over the merger of the Mac and Lisa divisions.
The question is, now that it is a big (last year's sales: $983 million) computer company, what does it think like?
"When we first started building Apple IIs in my garage," Jobs said over cocktails at a Boston press reception, "we were involved in a product that was designed to be built in a garage. With Mac, we've now got a machine that's designed to roll off the production line once every 27 seconds. That's not just a quantitative difference, it's a conceptual difference. We are mass-producing a highly intricate machine that we think will take its place beside the telephone as a true desktop appliance."
Facilitating Apple's conceptual shift is another of Jobs's pet projects, a $20-million Freemont, Calif., manufacturing plant closely patterned on Japanese industrial models and built, he notes with some irony, near two idle automobile plants.
"We are looking at what will be a $40-billion [home computer] market by the end of the decade," Jobs added. "I honestly believe that once the smoke clears, only two companies will be competing for that market. We expect to be a $10-billion entity by the time that happens."
Those are great expectations. But hey, the kid talks big.