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A Funny Path to Today's Apple?

Reporter's Notebook: In a wistful moment during his keynote at Macworld this week, Steve Jobs reminded attendees that April 1 will mark the 30th anniversary of the dawn of Apple.

"I just wanted to point it out," said Jobs. "You know, Apple was founded on April Fools day in 1976. We thought that was funny at the time."

Indeed it was. And the fun was just starting. Plenty of books have been written about Apple's wild ride. I don't have that kind of space, but here are a few of the key moments in the history of Jobs & Company that stand out for me.

Apple has often been credited with having created the personal computer. Of course that's not true, because there were kits and other, more complete, personal computers at the time that sold well, such as the Commodore PET. And actually it was late-comer IBM who came up with the idea to call its first entry in the market a personal computer.

To give it fair credit though, Apple II popularized the idea of personal computing. Wozniak created the first Apple and Jobs had the innovative idea to build it in a more consumer-friendly plastic case.

First popular in home and education circles, the Apple II became a hot-selling business tool when VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, was developed for it.

Shortly after Apple was started, Jobs famously convinced the owner of one of the first computer stores that he'd have no problem delivering a hundred Apple II computers to sell.

From LISA to Mac

He then made a beeline to the Apple manufacturing facility (the garage at his parent's house) where the two Steves, family and friends worked around the clock to build the systems as fast as they could.

Apple has had plenty of ups and downs since then. LISA was Apple's first attempt at a graphical user interface and mouse, a design that built on ideas Jobs had seen at Xerox PARC research labs in its pioneering Alto computer.

LISA
LISA
Source: Digibarn.com

Designed for executives, LISA originally sold for $10,000 and never gained traction. When I attended the demonstration of LISA at its launch, Jobs even seemed momentarily confused at what to do next. I heard an Apple exec sitting in back of me say to himself, "Click the mouse, Steve." He did, and the demo proceeded flawlessly.

Apple's next system, the Mac, eventually became Jobs' biggest claim to fame.

The late Jef Raskin started the project at Apple, but Jobs had very different ideas about what it should be and quickly took over.

Apple's ad agency produced what's been called the "greatest TV ad of all time" for the Mac's launch. It aired during the Super Bowl in 1984.

And it is a great ad, even if it wildly exaggerated the impact the first Mac would have, with its floppy-disk drive for storage and black and white screen.

Jobs pushed his team to develop more Mac models with color and hardware expansion options and convinced more developers to write for it. Still the prospects for Mac and Apple as a company weren't all that rosy.

The worst period spanned from 1987 to the mid-90s when Jobs was no longer in charge. Although he officially resigned, Jobs was really forced out of the company in a board decision initiated by John Sculley, the former Pepsi executive he'd brought in as president.

Software delays and product fiascos, such as the Newton handheld, beset the company under Sculley, which sparked a succession of replacement CEOs.

Next Cube
The NeXt Cube
Source: Next.ex.com

Jobs went on to create a new computer company, Next, Inc., with backing from Ross Perot. Jobs had appeared in a PBS documentary on young entrepreneurs. Perot saw the show, which included Jobs challenging some of his employees comments in a staff meeting, and in so many words said "I like that boy."

In the early days of Next Jobs presented a chart that purported to show the arc of a product's popularity. During the presentation, which I attended, he essentially said the Mac's best days were behind it, and it had a limited future with the ascent of more advanced systems, such as the Next Cube. Now there's some wishful thinking for you.

I also recall Jobs saying something like, "Music is going to be very important. I can't say exactly why." By the time of the iPod he'd more than figured it out.

But the sleek black Next Cube computer, while praised for many innovations, failed. The advanced software behind it eventually became part of what Jobs brought with him in his return to Apple.

Years later, Jobs' initially triumphant return to Apple was later greeted by a series of "what the [expletive]" complaints by many of the Mac faithful.

He killed the Macintosh-compatible licensing program that appeared to be gaining momentum and promised to broaden the Mac's user base by bringing new Mac hardware makers and innovation to the Mac universe. He also settled a patent dispute with Microsoft, which many felt had copied many of the Mac's ideas for Windows.

iPod Video
The iPod is one key to Apple's continued success.
Source: Apple

Jobs also agreed to a deal with Bill Gates to have Microsoft invest $150 million in Apple, which was a tremendous, if controversial, needed show of support at the time.

Skipping ahead several years, the Mac's prospects have improved steadily since the Microsoft investment and other moves by Apple.

Still, the Mac holds but a tiny percent of the overall desktop and notebook market and this past year it was beginning to look like the company headquartered at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, Calif. should be renamed iPods R Us after its market-dominant music player.

But this week's ahead-of-schedule introduction of systems based on Intel's latest processors promises to reinvigorate the Mac line.

Apple has in fact reinvented itself as both a computer and a consumer electronics company. The days of building executive workstations like the LISA, are but a distant memory.

We may also quickly forget how close Apple was to losing its independence. Rumors have swirled over the years of Sun Microsystems buying Apple, as well as Sony, a company Jobs has voiced great admiration for.

But Apple doesn't need the maker of Walkmans. It has the iPod.

Now that's funny.