Steve Jobs Repolished a Tarnished Brand

By Colin Crawford

(Editor’s note: Media 7 CEO, Colin Crawford posted this minonline tribute to Steve Jobs on August 25, 2011 after Jobs’ resignation as Apple CEO.)

I was saddened by the news that Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO of Apple. While obviously related to his health, the news that he remains as chairman of the board hopefully means he will continue to contribute to Apple’s success for some considerable time.

I was CEO of MacPublishing in 1997, which was an extremely tough time in the Mac world. A number of major missteps by Apple’s management during Jobs’ 1985-1997 "hiatus" had resulted in a beleaguered company on the brink of collapse. A decision by Apple to license its OS to clone companies rather than opening up the market caused Apple to lose its most lucrative high-end customers to more agile and nimble competitors. Mac OS was in desperate need of a massive overhaul; the product line was a confusing mess. The company was losing massive amounts of money when Jobs returned.

It was a memorable August Day at Macworld Boston in 1997 when I nervously stepped on stage to introduce Jobs. He had not helped my nerves by making disparaging remarks about my dress code in the back stage “Green Room” by threatening to cut off my tie and telling me to keep my remarks to only 90 seconds.

As well as the introduction, I was announcing a joint venture (MacPublishing) between IDG and Ziff Davis combining Macworld, MacUser and MacWEEK into one organization. Bringing two fearsome publishing rivals underscored how tough the market had become. It made much more sense to work together that compete for very little.

However, that announcement was totally overshadowed as Steve Jobs took the stage and stunned the audience by beaming in Bill Gates who announced a $150 million investment by Microsoft in Apple.  That deal, finalized just hours before, was greeted by boos from the Mac diehards who shuddered at the image of Gates hovering over them on a big screen. It was eerily reminiscent of Apple’s famous 1984 commercial. Had Apple sold its soul for a few pieces of silver?

Of course, the deal was a stroke of brilliance, it solved many problems for both companies, including (1) the specter of an anti-trust investigation as Microsoft was getting awfully close to controlling 100% of PC operating systems; (2) the resolution of several patent disputes; and (3) a vital cash injection for Apple but even more importantly a long-term commitment from Microsoft to Office on the Mac.

Following the keynote, Steve invited me to Cupertino. I was not to wear a tie.

In a small conference room, I experienced the famous "Reality Distortion Factor" firsthand. In a wide-ranging conversation, I was suspicious, but enthralled by his passionate commitment to "repolish a tarnished brand". Apple and Steve’s DNA seemed one and the same. Each needed the other.

He spoke of the emotional commitment that was necessary between people and Apple products. He argued that Apple has lost its way over the last decade. Apple product quality was low; the software and hardware integration that should have given a delightful user experience was sorely diminished. “Hello”–the original magic of the Mac–was gone.

Steve had no desire to play in the lo- cost, commodity PC market. He wanted to create stunning, high-quality products that would wow and enthrall the user. Apple products were not to be mere tools but were to be extensions of people’s creativity. Technology was there to spur on creative passion across all industries.

There was a very long road ahead with many tough decisions.. The products were weak with overlapping and confusing, unfocused lines. At this point in time even Steve could not sell these products but he could sell a vision.

Think Different was born, a tribute to those Steve viewed as his heroes. The crazy ones who changed the world were his inspiration.

I was far from convinced he could pull it off. I wanted to believe but the evidence was overwhelming that the chances were extremely thin.

We now know the outcome. Over the last 14 years, Steve, with a powerful supporting team that goes very deep in the company, has pulled off what we all thought impossible. From the brink of despair, Apple is now one of the most highly valued companies in the world.  With today’s capitalization value of around $350 billion, it’s hard to remember that back in 1997 Apple’s market value was around $2 billion with most of that in hard-to-access cash assets outside the US.

I feel very honored and privileged to have spent time with Steve and the Apple executives over the years. Not all the conversations were easy ones, but it was one heck of a journey. Steve’s talents as a visionary, incredible presenter, negotiator and CEO are truly remarkable.

Fourteen years ago, the only person who believed that the Apple we see today was a possibility was Steve Jobs.

Media 7’s CEO Colin Crawford was Macworld and MacPublishing CEO from 1995-2003