Inc. At 20 Years!
Look back at the people and trends that shaped our world, 1979-1999

Starting Apple Computer made Steve Jobs famous. But how he did it made him a legend

What ultimately mattered about Steven Paul Jobs wasn't that he almost single-handedly created an industry--overturning what looked like an invulnerable establishment in the process--but that he took it all so personally. And while it became fair game to question his quirky decisions and his offbeat behavior, no one ever doubted how he felt about what he was doing.

Steve Jobs loved Apple Computer Inc., the company he cofounded in 1976. And he made sure that everybody knew it. In the early days, his pet project was a computer named Lisa, a moniker he swiped from his own daughter. So what if it tanked in the marketplace? It struck an emotional chord. So, of course, did the Macintosh itself, a machine that breeds fire-breathing fanatics at least as predictably as it performs any conventional function. Even the stories that spread about Jobs's screwy self-indulgences--he once rejected a circuit-board design, for example, on purely aesthetic grounds--served only to solidify the impression that he needed every product to be an impeccable reflection of his own taste. Well, sure. What good is it to have your own business if you can't use it to express yourself?

Which is why it made sense that Jobs, insanely rich and merely 30 when he was banished from his kingdom in a 1985 coup, wouldn't actually go away. He couldn't. He had grown up at Apple, and the parts of him that had found their voice there--the self-absorbed hippie, the arrogant insurgent--would have suffocated had he resorted to shuffling a megaportfolio of investments, say, or sponsoring rock-a-paloozas, as his cofounder, Steve Wozniak, went on to do. True, Jobs would proceed to make buckets of money at Pixar Animation Studios, but that was never his; he had bought it from Lucasfilm Ltd. in 1986.

Jobs used Pixar to make animated features like A Bug's Life, which tells the story of Flik, a quixotic ant who tries to save his colony by making a difference.

Jobs wanted to make a difference too--and not just for his own gratification but for the sake of "the rest of us," as he put it. That was the phrase he coined to define the Mac's target market, sealing a bond with those who would accept nothing more off-putting than the productivity tool we had already crowned as the standard, the Etch A Sketch. We weren't interested in (or maybe, gulp, capable of) mastering a dweeby computer language, but we could envision ourselves pointing an arrow at a picture of a trash can and clicking madly. And that, too, played no small part in Jobs's stunning achievement--that he could make us feel that he was one of us. He feared what we feared: having our power and individuality rubbed out by the nameless Big Brother so effectively rendered in that chilling 1984 Macintosh ad. He had seen the enemy, and it was...Charlie Chaplin? So what if that's the persona IBM adopted in its ads. Jobs still invited us to think it was anything but harmless. He incited us to rise up against the colossal forces that denied us computing power on our own terms, walling away their room-sized mainframes in Biosphere-like bubbles.

We wanted a machine that we could use to write programs or play games without waiting in line at school or work. We wanted to open up the stylish box and play with the pieces, and come away knowing something others didn't know. Or maybe we didn't want to do any of that. Really, it didn't matter. Jobs won us over not because he was right, but because he was having so much fun.

It was only in the name of fun that he and Wozniak had even started fiddling around in that locale that's now the archetypal launching pad of choice for tinkerers certain they know a better way: the garage. This one belonged to Jobs's family, and the pair didn't set out to create a market there. They were building toys for themselves and others like them, the phone freaks and computer hobbyists for whom the dream of having a computer was every bit as gripping--and as attainable--as owning a Ferrari. The tradition-bound computer makers could ask their customers to tell them what they wanted; Jobs and Wozniak were arrogant enough to believe they already knew. And when what they created turned out to be a business tool, they openly took delight in having taught dominant Big Blue a lesson. By 1981, with Apple having exploded into a $335-million business, IBM was making PCs.

Published on: May 15, 1999