Christopher Pratt (cpratt) wrote,
Christopher Pratt
cpratt

Steve

I'm not surprised by Jobs' death, and of course my inner cynic wants to blame homeopathy or whatever the hell it was he was into; an anecdote that has stayed with me revolves around macrobiotic Indian food (or something) he tried to share with Gil Amelio back in the day, but of course I digress (and I don't really trust my own memory at this stage in the game).

My contact with Steve was virtually nil, but still more than most folks, so I'll run through the story again as honestly as I know how.

I first saw a Macintosh in high school. It was lovely; I was fascinated by the potential of doing my own typesetting, but ultimately I couldn't imagine ever making enough money to own one.

Later on, at UC Berkeley, I sold Macs at the student union book store; I still couldn't afford them, but I did pay a lot of attention to NeXT, which had recently launched at some gala over in San Francisco, I think.

After graduating, I wound up dating a guy named Joe whose flatmate Nick worked for NeXT. It was the first time I'd seen a NeXTstation; again, it was interesting largely because I was interested in typesetting, but God only knows it was outrageously expensive and way beyond my means. At least I was finally able to see the mythical computer that had been so widely talked about at Berkeley; no, it wasn't really exciting, but I did wind up attending NeXTworld Expo in May 1993, where I heard Steve talk for the first time; he introduced NeXTTime, a sort of QuickTime clone, with a clip of Star Wards. It was cool, sure; at first, though, it didn't seem any different than QuickTime, but it turns out was different in that he'd thought farther than Apple had, obviously spending time worrying about the sonics of it all and not just the visuals; if I remember correctly, it was THX certified and could handle more than two channels of sound, which I should have realized was typical of the man: sure, he gave you what you wanted, but he also made sure it had things you didn't know you needed just yet. After all, computers at the time had single speakers; it was only the previous year that Sound Blaster cards had made stereo an option, generally speaking. (Of course, NeXT hardware could do it, but again: who could afford that?)

I met Joe while I was working at CompUSA, a now-defunct computer retailer that was fairly widespread in the early 1990s. I became the chain's only expert on OPENSTEP for Mach, the NeXT operating system that ran on IBM compatible PCs. At the time, hardware that could actually run it was incredibly rare, more expensive than anything else on the market (heck, a JAWS video adapter alone cost more than most PCs), and although I knew what it was and how to configure it, I don't think that any store in the entire chain ever sold any of it, period, ever. Even so, it was kind of cool being an expert in a field that was totally irrelevant. Story of my life, I guess.

Fast forward another year and boom, I was working for Apple... technically. Mind you, I was only ever at Claris, in Santa Clara; although I had an Apple employee number, my badge wouldn't even allow me to enter the cafeteria at One Infinite Loop. The closest I could come was to visit the Company Store to buy unsellable Performa hardware at fire sale prices, alas. This eventually led to the other two times I had any kind of interaction with Steve; one was no more personal than NeXTworld Expo was, but the other still brings a smile to my face even today.

Claris was a software developer wholly owned by Apple that was best known at the time for ClarisWorks, which was essentially Microsoft Office lite for Apple computers. Its other money maker was a database called FileMaker Pro, which had originally started out as a DOS application called Nutshell, but which had really blossomed as a Mac application by the early 1990s. Although it's hard to imagine what things were like a quarter century ago, there was a time when industry pundits agreed that no one would ever buy a Mac unless it had certain types of software applications; Microsoft sold most of them (Word, mostly, but also Excel), but FileMaker Pro was the only credible database application available (Guy, I know 4D was cool, but honestly, no one really cared) at the time.

Anyhow, that job at Claris was the first "real" job I ever had. Unlike CompUSA, I was making more than minimum wage, didn't have to punch a time card, and even started contributing to a 401(k). Pretty awesome. However, what was really strange about my presence there was that I was not a Macintosh kind of guy: although I did own a battered Centris 610 that I convinced CompUSA to sell me for $400, I like to think that I had realized that Windows, however crappy, was obviously going to be the big winner in the operating system wars of the early 1990s. I became (in some weird sense) the Steve Jobs of Windows at Claris - that is, I had a theory that, in order to be successful on Windows and thereby earn so much fucking money that we could subsidize Apple, which was losing lots of money at the time, we had to be the best God damn Windows application we could possibly be. As a test engineer, I annoying the living shit out of the Claris engineers by hounding them to make sure that FileMaker Pro was the Windows-iest Windows application that had ever been seen anywhere near Cupertino. Heck, I even made sure that we passed Microsoft logo certification for our products; I was very, very proud that FileMaker products had those ugly-ass Designed for Microsoft BackOffice (and so on) logos on their boxes.

And, believe it or not, it worked (and not without a lot of hard work from colleagues such as Karl Pittenger, Christian Thomas, and Dave Heiber). By the time 1995 had rolled around, Apple was losing a lot of money trying to sell Macs, but the amount of profit - not revenue, but profit! - coming in from Windows software was canceling out those losses. That's right: if it weren't for Windows, Apple would have lost money in certain quarters. Go figure.

Anyhow! Fast forward another year: Apple was continuing to flail financially, the CEO was trying to figure out how to get a modern operating system, and there was a ridiculous amount of gossip flying around. Would we license Windows NT from Bill? Buy Be from Jean-Louis? Something else? Oh yes, something else: no one saw it coming, but NeXT bought Apple by the end of 1996. I was excited: finally, someone who seemed to actually care about what we were doing.

In the early days of 1997, Steve killed Claris. Yeah, he fired pretty much everybody, canceled all the products, and showed up in the Claris auditorium to explain what was going on. I had to come in early that day - I administered the Windows servers at Claris, and had to disable dozens of user accounts before the big meeting - and arrived late to hear Steve talking to everyone. That's the best example of the reality distortion field I ever saw: he convinced a room of shell-shocked employees that what he'd just done was absolutely necessary and was going to do wonders for Apple.

It did. Apple stole ClarisWorks just long enough to keep education contracts going before the Internet made that kind of software obsolete. FileMaker, the only product left standing, was strong enough to keep making lots of money, even if it was mostly on Windows. By the end of 1997, it was clear that things were going to be OK.

Now, another detour. It's a long story, but the software engineers who had been working on ClarisWorks had mostly left Apple for Microsoft by 1995. Gil Amelio and the gang at Apple didn't see the Internet coming, refused to fund any kind of Web browser development at Claris, and the ClarisWorks dev lead quickly got a killer deal with Microsoft going that led to them opening an office in San Jose to develop Internet Explorer for the Macintosh. My husband Dan wound up becoming the test lead for Mac IE; as a result, he was able to get development builds of the Apple Mac OS software for test purposes.

As an Apple employee, this struck me as, well, retarded. I mean, what the fuck? Microsoft employees could get Mac OS builds, but I couldn't? Even more frustratingly, I would surreptitiously copy the Mac OS builds Microsoft was getting to Zip disks (don't laugh) and pass them around the FileMaker office... and FileMaker employees would find bugs in FileMaker software that they could fix, which of course would be a real boon to Apple and its customers. Right? Even so, we'd continually go to our contacts over at Apple and ask them for pre-release Mac OS builds... and get denied. Fuckers.

Finally, I'd had enough. I emailed Steve, explained the situation, and asked for permission to access the build servers over on the Apple campus. I mean, we could see them on our own corporate network and all, but just couldn't log on to them.

A day later, I received a terse email from Steve that basically said "yes." That was it. Nothing more than that.

The next day, I received a panicked email from our Apple contact as well as voicemail with what I thought might be the sound of hyperventilation in the background. In essence, all he had to say was "you have access now, and for the love of God, don't ever talk to Steve again." Mission accomplished.

I never emailed Steve again - I had no reason to bother the guy - but I'll always smile when I think of that brief, indirect interaction with the man. (I'll always also smile at his announcement that the Apple campus was going entirely nonsmoking, or that the hamburger grill was replaced by a soba bar at the Apple cafeteria, but of course those emails were far less personal.)

More than anything, I'm lucky to have a few Steve-like people in my life. I won't name names - toadying is so unbecoming - but some are coworkers, more are friends, and I'm very happy to know them. As Yoko would say, we can all be Steve (if we want to).
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