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Steve Jobs as Apple's CEO: a retrospective in products

Steve Jobs as Apple's CEO: a retrospective in products

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It's hard to believe, but Steve Jobs has only been Apple's CEO for the last 13 of the company's 35 years in operation. During that time, he's been responsible for a number of new products that have transformed entire industries around them -- and he's managed to do it several times over. Now that Jobs is stepping aside and leaving the role to Tim Cook, we thought we'd look back at Steve's tenure as CEO through the lens of those products, which stand as testament to one of the most remarkable stories in American business history. Join us, won't you?

Microsoft Office for Mac

The Steve Jobs keynote has become a staple of the tech industry, but the very first product Jobs introduced on stage after returning to Apple wasn't his own. On August 6th, 1997, at the MacWorld Expo, Steve Jobs -- then still only officially an "advisor" to Apple -- told a generation of Mac users that their computers would run Microsoft Office and Microsoft Internet Explorer. In truth, that was just the beginning of Microsoft's involvement in a revitalized Apple -- the five-year Microsoft Office deal, a patent cross-licensing arrangement and a $150 million stock purchase by the Redmond giant just might have saved the then-floundering Apple from the vestiges of history. One month later, on September 16th, 1997, Apple's board named Jobs "interim" CEO.

The iMac and PowerBook G3

In May 1998, Jobs took the stage wearing a sharp black suit that matched the new PowerBook G3. It was a 233MHz, 250MHz or 292MHz PowerPC laptop that smoked the latest Pentium notebooks in a live demonstration, and came in 12.1, 13.3 and 14.1-inch screen configurations. The highlight of the day’s entertainment, however, was the introduction of the original iMac. The egg-shaped, translucent 233MHz G3 all-in-one computer made its debut in a world filled with beige machines, and featured the first standard USB 1.1 ports to ship in a mass-market consumer machine, a tray-loading CD-ROM drive, a integrated carrying handle, a pair of stereo speakers and a 15-inch CRT screen -- and no floppy disk drive for backwards compatibility. Whether you liked the aesthetic or not, it was a revelation in computer design, and the transparent plastics dicated the look and feel of Apple consumer products -- and a million knockoffs -- for years down the line.

The iBook and AirPort

At MacWorld New York on July 21st, 1999, Jobs revealed the iBook, a 300MHz PowerPC G3 laptop computer with a slim carrying handle and a fairly literal interpretation of a clamshell design that looked rather uncomfortably like a neon toilet lid. Unlike any other consumer machine at the time, it was cased in polycarbonate plastic with rubber around the rim for extra durability -- Jobs imagined students carrying it around campus by the handle. For $1,599, it came with a 12.1-inch LCD screen and an ATI Rage Mobility GPU, which Jobs called "the fastest graphics ever in a portable." The full-size keyboard and "all-day" battery life of up to six hours were further complimented by a slot for an internal AirPort 802.11b wireless card with integrated antennas in the lid of the display -- the first mass-market machine to feature such a capability, and the start of a wireless networking revolution. The iBook’s aesthetic enhancements, if not its overall aesthetic, stay with the Mac laptop lineup today -- it was the first machine to sport a latch-less lid, side-mounted ports, and a glowing sleep indicator.

The G4 Cube

Introduced in July 2000, the G4 Cube is the go-to example for people who argue that Apple pays more attention to beautiful hardware design than actual hardware functionality. The cube was a tiny eight inches square, and had a unique design with a top-loading CD drive, ports on the bottom, and a pop-out internal chassis that allowed for easy access to the guts of the machine. Unfortunately, the beautiful machine was also extremely tempermental: many Cubes developed cracks in their plastic casings, the capacitive power button was on a hair-trigger, and while the top-loading design was clever, the fanless convection system tended to fail if anything was set on top of the machine. The G4 Cube earned a place in the Museum of Modern Art, but it failed to earn a place in the market, and it was discontinued a year later.


Of all the Apple products Jobs has directly touched over the years, Mac OS X is the most closely associated with his return from NeXT, the company he’d founded following his departure from Apple over a decade prior. Apple had spent much of the 1990s attempting to kick off development of a next-generation operating system, and ultimately found its solution in buying NeXT outright; its NeXTSTEP software was light years ahead of Apple’s platform architecturally, and buying back Jobs as a part of the acquisition amounted to a nice bonus.

Jobs first showed off OS X at Macworld in 2000, calling the candy-gloss UI "lickable," and showing off innovations like save sheets and the Dock. Things have changed dramatically through seven major revisions and a change from PowerPC to Intel architecture, but OS X continues to be the operating system that Mac owners use today.

The iBook G3 Dual USB and PowerBook G4 Titanium

While the Cube may be forgotten, the white iBook G3 Dual USB and the PowerBook G4 Titanium Jobs introduced in 2001 continue to serve as benchmarks of laptop design. The $2,599 PowerBook G4 Titanium introduced at Macworld San Francisco in January 2001 packed a 500MHz G4 processor and a 15-inch widescreen display into a titanium frame just one inch thick -- an iconic design whose influence still echoes today. Similarly, the consumer-oriented white iBook introduced during an October 2001 special event on Apple's campus featured a novel integrated hinge that swung the display back and down -- a compact, elegant design was quickly adopted across the industry and is still used in the MacBook Pros of today. And in possibly the most major design change of the Jobs CEO era, both machines featured the Apple logo right-side-up with the lid opened, turning every iBook and PowerBook into a glowing advertisement for the company.

The Digital Hub

Macworld 2001 featured Jobs at perhaps his most prophetic when he outlined the Apple's new "digital hub" strategy -- a vision in which the PC served as the central repository and value-add for the increasing array of digital devices carried by consumers. Responding to the conventional wisdom that these devices would ultimately kill the PC, Jobs was blunt in saying that "We don't think the PC is dying at all. We don't think the PC is moving from the center at all. We think it's evolving. Just like it has since it was invented in 1975 and '76." This vision would become the foundation for Apple's strategy for the next ten years -- until Jobs himself would proclaim that the iPhone and iPad marked the beginning of the "post-PC era."

The Apple Store

While Jobs' time at Apple was marked by countless technological innovations in the hardware space, the Apple Store redefined the traditional brick and mortar computer shopping experience with a tightly curated selection of products in a clean, clearly designed space. Jobs tapped ex-Target businessman Ron Johnson to champion the stores, which were focused around Apple's entire product line, software (solutions), accessories, and the Genius Bar (customer support). Steve Jobs unveiled them to the public for the first time in a personal tour in 2001.

A few days later, on May 15, Apple Stores stocked with iBooks, iMacs, PowerBook G4's and more opened in Tysons Corner, Virginia and Glendale, California, kicking off Apple's minimalist retail experience that would grow to over 300 stores globally and billions in annual sales. Apple built a commanding retail presence by tying the debut of products like the iPad and iPhone to launch events at the Apple Stores and creating iconic designs like Apple's New York Fifth Avenue store -- and perhaps most importantly, offering free in-person support for customers at the Genius Bar.

The iPod

The dawn of an empire. Building on the digital hub strategy, Steve Jobs announced the original iPod at a special event in October 2001 -- a product that would go on to change the course of both the tech industry and the music business. The first model held 1,000 songs on then-new pocket-size 5GB hard drive, offered a 10-hour battery life, and could sync an entire CDs worth of music from iTunes over FireWire in just seconds, while charging over that very same cable. All this in a package was about the size of a deck of cards, which Jobs called "ultra-portable" at the time -- kudos to then-Apple exec Jon Rubinstein, who had visited Toshiba in February of that year and learned about the 1.8-inch hard drives that enabled the then-impressive size. Most importantly of all, the iPod was simple to use, an idea Jobs championed — as Jonathan Ive said to the New York Times, "it was about being very focused and not trying to do too much with the device." It wasn’t just Jobs having the loudest voice in the design process; it was him picking the right people to shepherd the idea of a pocketable music player.

Needless to say, we've come a long way since then. It would arguably take until 2005 before the sales really started making a mark, but by April 2007 Apple would proudly announce that over 100 million iPods had been sold. Today, that number is closer to 300 million units. The sixth generation iPod Classic, introduced in 2008 and still about the size of a deck of cards, is just barely hanging on, and the more modern iPod nano and iPod shuffle are being squeezed out by smartphones and the iPod touch. What a difference ten years makes.

Fun fact: the name itself reportedly comes from a freelance copywriter who saw an early prototype and immediately thought of the 2001: Space Odyssey line, "open the pod bay door, Hal."

The iTunes Music Store

You can't talk about the iPod without mentioning the iTunes Music Store, which revolutionized digital content delivery for the masses. The iPod was already a few years old when Steve Jobs announced the iTunes Music Store on April 28, 2003. Jobs said his new store had to "compete with free," and he planned to do it by offering tangible value in the form of professionally-encoded 128kbps AAC files and a sense of moral certainty -- unlike filesharing services, which Jobs characterized as offering stolen files "encoded by seven-year-olds." And although the FairPlay DRM used on iTunes tracks in the early years was limiting, Jobs clearly felt that ownership and flexibility were paramount -- he claimed that subscription music services like Rhapsody and the now-defunct PressPlay "treat you like a criminal" thanks to their then-restrictive terms of use. (iTunes music files would go DRM-free in 2009.) Amazingly, Jobs quoted Hunter S. Thompson when first mentioning his negotiations with the "Big 5" music labels:

"The Music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs… There also a negative side."

The service launched with 200,000 tracks priced at a flat $0.99 each, and by April 2008, iTunes was the number one music vendor in the US. By February 2010, Apple's music service had served up its 10 billionth song, seven years after it began. Today the iTunes Music Store has been renamed and grown into the iTunes Store, the App Store, and the iBookstore to better reflect the fact that Apple now offers digital media in the form of books, films, television shows, apps, and yes, some 14 million songs.

The iPod mini and iPod nano

At Macworld in January 2004, Jobs introduced the iPod mini, Apple's first aggressive move into the lower-end of MP3 player market. Jobs compared the new model to competitive $199 MP3 players and called the mini's premium $249 price tag "the best 50 bucks you'll ever spend." The mini was also the first iPod to come in colors, and featured the debut of Apple's now-famous clickwheel, which put the buttons under the capacitive scroll wheel -- which Jobs noted was "patent pending." The mini ultimately became the best-selling MP3 player in the world and the key to Apple's dominance of the market... until Jobs killed it off and replaced it with the iPod nano just 18 months later.

Jobs wasn't shy about the original iPod nano when he announced it at a special event in September 2005 -- he called it "the biggest revolution since the original iPod." The diminutive new player was just a fifth of the size of the original iPod and a third of the size of the mini, and held up to 1,000 songs on 4GB of flash storage. Perhaps even more tellingly, Jobs introduced the nano at the same event as Motorola's new "iTunes phone," the ROKR E1, completely upstaging the dull-looking phone that could only hold 100 songs -- a snub that would later prompt Moto CEO Ed Zander to say "screw the nano."

The nano carries on today, smaller than ever -- it's now small enough to be worn as a watch.

The Intel iMac and MacBook Pro

At WWDC in 2005, Steve Jobs announced that Apple was abandoning the PowerPC architecture for Intel chips, to dead silence from the crowd. Steve cited a need for reduced power consumption, not just performance, as a reason for the switch, and promised a complete transition within two years -- a timeline enabled by a five-year secret project to maintain Intel versions of OS X "just in case." Jobs would reveal the first shipping Intel-based Macs at MacWorld 2006 -- an otherwise-identical iMac and a new portable that shared a case with the outgoing PowerBook G4 but was now called the MacBook Pro. Externally both machines were unchanged from their predecessors, but the Core Duo processors within were the beginnings of an entirely new future for the Mac.

Mac mini

Jobs’ obsession with industrial design can be seen in nearly everything Apple does, and the Mac mini has been one of the cleanest, simplest executions of his philosophy since its introduction in 2005. In launching one of the smallest mainstream desktop computers ever made, Apple had its work cut out for it -- another small square with a G4 inside after the Cube? -- and the Mac mini mostly delivered with an aggressive price point (the original low-end model retailed for $499) and its drop-dead simplicity.

Although the Mac mini was released at a time when all-in-one designs like Apple's own iMac were really starting to dominate the desktop market, it's succeeded in carving out a niche: it soldiers on today in a second-generation "unibody" aluminum design that was just made even more minimal with the removal of its optical drive.

Apple TV

Shown in prototype form as the "iTV" in late 2006, Apple TV is perhaps the black sheep of Apple’s lineup -- a product Steve Jobs has famously called a "hobby" over the years. We’d say that’s a proper description, too: it’s never enjoyed even a fraction of the advertising or retail support of its more successful siblings, and you don’t really expect mile-long lines of expectant buyers on an Apple TV "launch day."

Still, Apple TV isn’t a forgotten product -- far from it. Apple essentially reinvented it last year, taking it from a hot, bulky white box equipped with a hard drive and an Intel processor down to a black cube barely larger than a deck of cards running iOS that gets all of its content over the network -- a testament to fast networks, broadband internet connections, and iTunes' dominance as a movie and TV show rental service.

The iPhone

It's basically impossible to overstate the importance of the original iPhone to Apple and to the industry at large. It literally changed the face of phones and presaged the explosive growth in smartphones and later tablets. Launched at Macworld in January 2007, the iPhone was the first smartphone to achieve mass adoption with a large, capacitive touchscreen, a desktop-class browser, iPod functionality, and usability that was literally years ahead of its competitors.

The iPhone's hardware was amazingly thin for its time with an all-glass front and an aluminum back. The real story was the software, though. Conceived as a variant of OS X (which would only later be rebranded iOS), the iPhone OS utilized both touch and gestures throughout the OS. Pinch-to-zoom and swipe-to-scroll soon became de facto standards for touch interaction across the industry -- even though Jobs famously said it was all patented during the announcement.

Crucially, the iPhone did not run native, third party apps when it launched -- instead Apple attempted to find success by pushing developers to create web-based apps that would run within Mobile Safari, something Jobs called a "sweet solution." The iPhone was also widely criticized for running only on Cingular's (and later AT&T's) 2G EDGE network, while 3G phones were already widely available. Both of these shortcomings were later rectified -- apps in particular setting off another revolution.

The MacBook Air

On January 15th, 2008, Steve Jobs pulled a 13-inch laptop out of a manila envelope -- a laptop just 19mm thick at its thickest point. The MacBook Air was the culmination of all that had come before; the aluminum unibody frame and sealed battery that allowed for its razor-thin edges had just recently made waves in the company’s MacBook and MacBook Pro lines, and its battery life came courtesy of the unit’s ultra-low-voltage Intel Core 2 Duo processor. And yet, the MacBook Air wasn’t a runaway success in 2008 due to its relatively low power, dearth of ports and high price point. A few years later, though, it caught on -- advances in 2010 and 2011 made the redesigned $999 MacBook Air powerful and affordable at the same time, as it replaced the plastic MacBook as the entry-level model in Cupertino’s laptop line.

The App Store and iOS

Perhaps the single biggest innovation that drove adoption and mindshare of Apple’s mobile ecosystem was the App Store, built in to iPhone OS 2.0. Although other smartphones had apps before, the App store completely changed the game with its robust SDK, wide developer support, and compelling apps at relatively inexpensive prices. The App Store made it easier than ever to purchase, download, and install applications on a smartphone -- and some would argue it was easier than on a desktop computer as well. Everyone could happen on-device with a stored iTunes account, which many consumers already had set up to purchase music and movies.

Since its introduction, the App Store has completely blown away the competition. While other smartphone platforms have since added their own app storefronts, Apple has maintained a lead in the number of available apps for iOS and -- more importantly -- in the quality of apps available. While some have complained that the new model has driven the price of apps lower, an entire generation of developers has been able to make a living writing for the iPhone and iPad.

Once Apple opened the the door to third-party development, the iPhone OS a far more important part of the vernacular than it had ever been before. After the introduction of the iPod touch and iPad, the operating system known as iPhone OS ultimately became iOS to reflect its expanding role in Apple’s product line. And hints in Mac OS X Lion certainly suggest a future where Apple’s two operating systems could merge, with the desktop OS liberally borrowing concepts originally conceived for the company’s mobile devices -- a future that all began with the iPhone.

The iPad

Though tablet computing existed long before the iPad, Apple’s entry was almost singlehandedly responsible for thrusting the product category into broad consumer acceptance for the first time. Introduced in early 2010 with heavy fanfare from Jobs, who called it "magical," the iPad’s introduction was met with no shortage of skepticism -- "it’s just a giant iPod touch" and "I don’t know why I’d need one of these in my life" were common reactions -- but it didn’t take long for the product to become a runaway success, changing the industry in its wake. Jobs famously mentioned at AllThingsD’s D8 conference last year that his concept for the iPhone actually began as a tablet -- so even though this wildly successful line of products has only been on the market for about a year, the idea had been cooking for far, far longer.

The iPhone 4

Announced in 2010 after a highly controversial leak, the iPhone 4 brought the biggest changes to the iPhone line since its introduction. It featured a brand-new, thin design with a front-facing camera for video calls. It also was the first Apple product with a "Retina Display," a 960 x 540 screen resolution that offered 326dpi pixel density -- Jobs claimed anything over 300dpi made pixels indistinguishable to the human eye at 10 inches away. Inside, the phone used the same Apple-designed A4 chip as the original iPad, making it much faster than before.

The hardware consisted entirely of hardened glass on the front and back surround by a rim of aluminum that doubled as the antenna for the device. That rim soon became the source of some controversy as it became clear that it was possible to degrade the phone's reception with the "death grip" -- making a connection with your hand between two parts of the antenna. Steve Jobs eventually forced to call a second press conference to address the issue where Apple announced that it would offer free cases to all iPhone 4 buyers for a limited time.

Despite the controversy, the iPhone 4 has been Apple's most successful iPhone to date. That's primarily because Apple had aggressively expanded its global footprint, making the phone available on more carriers around the world than ever before. Apple also finally released an iPhone on the Verizon network in the US in 2011.

The iPad 2

Jobs came out swinging at when it came time to refresh the iPad, saying that 2011 would not be the "year of the copycats," but rather the "year of the iPad 2." So far, he's been right. The iPad 2 built on the original model’s success with the dual-core A5 processor -- Apple’s first use of multiple cores in a mobile device -- while slimming down to just 8.8 millimeters (thinner than all but a handful of smartphones on the market) and shedding 15 percent of its weight. Jobs stressed the increased graphics performance and thinness of the device, and introduced the world to Smart Covers, which use magnets to attach to the device.


It's remarkable how much Steve Jobs has accomplished as CEO of Apple in just 13 years -- he's introduced not one but two major operating systems, revolutionized digital content distribution, and created an entirely new industry of mobile applications on smartphones and tablets. That's a hell of a run, and we're only hitting the big moments -- Steve's pushed out dozens of new products every year, and while they're not all successes, each has borne his unique stamp. And while we're sure Jobs will still be involved with Apple in his new role as chairman of the board, it's going to be up to Tim Cook and rest of Apple's management to carry on pushing Apple -- and the industry -- forward.

Dieter Bohn, Sean Hollister, Chris Ziegler, and Thomas Houston all contributed to this report.