Jobs introducing MacBook Air at Macworld 2008
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Becoming Steve Jobs, the new biography of Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, will be officially released tomorrow by Crown Business/Penguin Random House, and is currently available as a pre-order from Amazon ($12+) and Apple’s iBookstore ($13). While some of the book’s material will be familiar to avid followers of Jobs and Apple, there are some interesting details inside about how Jobs’ companies Apple, NeXt, and Pixar interrelated.

On NeXT: The book notes that the computer industry changed during Microsoft’s leadership, shifting to an environment where companies — the largest buyers of computers — were seeking reliability and stability rather than innovation. According to the authors, NeXT’s key failure was that it successfully identified a real market for $3,000 workstation computers targeted at the higher-education market, but went so far beyond that price point — in some cases in pursuit of industrial design goals — that few actual customers existed for its product.

NeXT, which was headquartered in the same business park where Steve Jobs first saw Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and graphical user interface, came tantalizingly close to undermining Microsoft at a key point in its growth: IBM licensed the NeXTSTEP operating system for use in workstations, and might have used it to compete against Windows personal computers.

“But Steve… held up IBM for more money, leading to another round of protracted negotiations. He overplayed his hand. Cannavino stopped taking Steve’s calls and just abandoned the project, although there was never any real announcement that it was over. It was a minor disappointment for IBM, ending its ‘Plan B’ fantasy of creating a real alternative to Microsoft’s new Windows graphical operating system for PCs.”

And there’s more…

NeXT, Continued: While NeXT very publicly failed to achieve its initial vision as a hardware company, some readers may be surprised by the extent to which the company’s founders abandoned Jobs. Dan’l Lewin was first, “quit[ting] NeXT in frustration months before the IBM deal dissolved,” soon thereafter telling Jobs that he was going to burn through all of the company’s remaining money and needed to start listening to his employees. Within months, two other founders resigned, followed by the last two (besides Jobs) a year later.

NeXT gave up on hardware, its NeXTSTEP operating system was going nowhere, and WebObjects — a side project that powered emerging web stores — was generating most of the company’s profits. But it was still acquired by an increasingly desperate Apple, which was searching for a next-generation operating system. And an I.M. Pei-designed “floating” staircase originally developed for NeXT’s offices eventually inspired the glass staircases in flagship Apple Stores around the world.

On Pixar: Becoming Steve Jobs suggests that it was Pixar that saved Jobs as he was in the process of running NeXT into the ground, teaching him the value of a more hands-off approach to certain managerial tasks. Like NeXT, Pixar went through a painful process of shedding its original business plans — including the sales of rendering hardware and software — to refocus on creating animated films. The short film Luxo Jr. was the tipping point for Pixar, packing more character and emotion into several minutes than some feature-length animations, and leading to the eventual development of Toy Story with Disney.

On Apple: After returning to Apple from NeXT, Jobs famously implemented a quadrant strategy, focusing the company’s limited resources solely on four types of products: consumer desktops and laptops, professional desktops and laptops. As a result, he slashed Apple’s headcount, preserving top performers and true believers while eliminating employees who weren’t contributing as much. He also fostered a somewhat combative environment within his executive ranks, encouraging key people to fight passionately in order to get people to do their best, and work together to develop strategies to get Steve to accept good ideas. As a result, the new team became strong, such that even a visiting Bill Gates opined that “everybody on that team… earned his pay. There’s no weakness in that team, nor is there a backup plan… It’s just this one team.”

Although it was previously reported that Jonathan Ive’s employment at Apple was tenuous when Steve Jobs returned to the company, Ive’s own ambivalence about staying hasn’t been discussed as much. Jobs famously warmed to Ive after they met, and despite having decided to look elsewhere (like his fellow employees), Ive changed his mind after realizing that Jobs was the opposite of outgoing Apple CEO Gil Amelio. Jobs was focused on making great products that would sell themselves and generate revenue, while Amelio had been focused on cutting expenses to match the revenue currently coming in. The iMac, a Jobs-Ive project with design DNA borrowed from an earlier Apple product called the eMate, was an early success in reversing an otherwise fatal slide in Apple’s sales.

The authors remind readers that despite the hard work of Jobs’ new team to “save Apple,” the company remained in rough shape through the end of 2000. At that point, they note that Apple’s executive team had consciously — and ironically — decided to co-opt a growth strategy Bill Gates had announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2000. Gates called it “Consumer-Electronics-Plus.” Apple called it “the Digital Hub.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Steve Jobs’ life, business strategies, successes and failures, the Becoming Steve Jobs book is certainly worth your time. Officially $30, it can be purchased through Amazon for $12 and up, and at the iBookstore for $13.

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