Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs Greatest Gift: The Reality Distortion Field


    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
                                    -- Philip K. Dick

Shortly after Steve Jobs became the CEO of Apple, during the very darkest of Apple's darkest days, he spoke at his first press conference and was asked this question, "How long would it take to turn Apple around?"

Now, before I repeat for you his astonishing reply it is important for you to recall the mood of the times, for his answer was an extraordinary statement from the new chief executive officer of any multi-billion dollar corporation. The response was not glib, well-rehearsed, happy-talk of the sort usually issued to impress Wall Street. There was no clipped, technical, business-speak of cost reductions, inventory management, restructuring or reorganization that any other new executive might have made to reassure stockholder's that he had their interests in mind. Neither did he pander to the assembled business press with the tired but expected allusions to market share targets and the spectre of open competition from a monstrous PC industry.

To be sure, this wasn't just any circumstance: Apple was in desperate straits. After quarters of red ink and declining market share, the company's press had been one, long-running obituary and the sacred honor of the company that had given the world the personal computer was fast becoming a sad joke. The Windows dominated industry had declared Apple dead, its contributions irrelevant and considered its faithful followers to be little more than poorly informed, sore losers who didn't know when to quit. Years of broken promises, half-hearted execution and ineffectual reorganizations had withered Apple’s credibility. Time had run out: A doubting world needed to be persuaded that the company would survive.

But who could convincingly deliver this terribly vital message that Apple would indeed, against the odds, come back? Perhaps some grey headed veteran of corporate turnarounds might possibly, just possibly, have had the credibility to persuade the world that Apple, parted out like a junk car, could be saved. A highflying executive from the entertainment world might have promised to salvage the bones of Apple as a vapid new incarnation in a different market, a market without such mighty competition as Microsoft. The president of Sony or AT&T or Sun or IBM or, God help us, Microsoft might have claimed to deliver a Faustian salvation in the form of trainloads of money. It would surely take that kind of clout to convince the world of two years ago that there was any hope for Apple. Anyone of less lofty stature would certainly seem inadequate, a second-stringer -- a desperate company’s final roll of the dice.

But Steve Jobs was no titan of industry, in fact, he had no history in turning around any company. His resume mentioned only one corporation which had made a real impact on the business world and that company was the very one he was now being called upon to save. He carried a reputation as an impetuous, arrogant, and borderline manic manager and while his more recent endeavors were touched with greatness they carried no persuasive evidence that he was up to this challenge. Though his strengths were renowned, they were not of the sort that would earn many points in the cold, sterile atmosphere of high finance. Standing there in front of the assembled press without even the minimal business credentials needed for such a difficult task, he must have realized what an unlikely messiah the world would see in him. He had been Apple's creator and then its prodigal son - now he was to be its savior?

Anyone else in his shoes would have thought long and hard about that skeptical and ever so cynical audience. Anyone else would have prepared the rote answers to the difficult and technical questions he would surely be asked. The investment crowd would need to hear certain things, the public something else, the pundits in the crowd needed entirely different answers. And of course there was THE question, the single most important and surely the most difficult question, the question upon which the survival of Apple depended:

"How long would it take to turn Apple around?"

This was his reply:

He paused for a couple of seconds and then answered, very simply: "We aren't going to turn Apple around, we're just going to make the best computers in the world."

It was like Babe Ruth pointing to the left field fence.
It was John Paul Jones declaring that he had not yet begun to fight.
It was Lindbergh climbing into the sky.
It was Steve Jobs putting a dent into the Universe.

It was ingenious, courageous, inspiring, unexpected and it worked. Something palpable in the collective consciousness of the crowd saw the rightness of not betting against Steve Jobs. Anything else he might have said would have been weighed harshly against the thousand technical details involved in the monumental task of making Apple whole; but if Steve Jobs said that Apple would make the best computers in the world, then in all probability that is exactly what would happen. The room was lit with the glowing blue aura of the famed Reality Distortion Field.

Nowadays, when the Reality Distortion Field of Steve Jobs is mentioned, the term seems laden with an air of disrepute, as if “Reality” were some golden truth and its manipulation was some crime of arrogance and dishonesty that leads others astray. But reality is seldom so pure that it should be treasured like some hallowed article of faith, and Apple’s reality of the moment was dreadful; it hung over the company like a foul blanket that suffocated the spirit of the faithful and hid the future from any light of possibility. Steve’s pronouncement threw off that blanket and it cut through the darkness of a thousand obstacles with a bright, clear goal: To make the best computers in the world. Everything else was detail.

What an audacious thing to say, that a company given up for dead would not only survive, but become the best of all. The sheer audacity hung in front of the entire Macintosh world like some wistful hallucination that wouldn’t go away, and over the months it began to take on a new form, that of a new reality.

First though, came a dark time, with painful layoffs and the loss of entire product lines. Thousands of man-years of experience were lost and millions of investment dollars were axed, but the new reality slowly grew. Then a new corporate strategy began to form, along with the outline of a credible product plan. Then there emerged a new, streamlined Apple infused with the best of Next. Apple urged us all to “Think Different.”  Then came the iMac.

With the arrival of the iMac there was finally something to cheer about. Not just a relieved little hooray either, but the huge crowd noise of a winner and the joy that comes when a bright vision is revealed to be real. The iMac was more than a great computer, it was a blazing success at a time that Apple truly needed one. It fed Apple’s depleted coffers but more importantly it distorted reality even more. Apple was once again a force to be reckoned with.

On the iMac’s heels came a truly gorgeous laptop and a beautiful, blue and white tower that was technologically the most powerful personal computer in the world. New display monitors showed how rapidly the Apple design ethic was growing into a coherent, revitalized, Macintosh family. The fine but aging legacies of the original Macintosh began to yield to new technologies: The noble QuickDraw3D was to be replaced with OpenGL, LocalTalk ceding to USB, even the venerable MacOS would soon have a heart of Unix. The finest products of Next’s superb software engineers migrated to the Macintosh, establishing a solid beachhead on the World Wide Web. Firewire and a newly invigorated QuickTime opened up a new era in multimedia and, guess what, the PC industry began, grudgingly, to once again follow Apple.

Bit by bit, the details of the new MacOS came to light and it was too good to be true. Carbon promised to make the transition from old applications to new more painless than thought possible, and Objective C and Java were awarded a native environment to ensure a path of future technological growth. There were tantalizing possibilities that Windows applications might be little more than a recompile away from Macintosh compatibility. Apple's release of FinalCut Pro seems to say that the Mac would become the multimedia platform “for the rest of us.” Then came the announcement of Quartz, a state of the art windowing system that will surely turn on its head our concept of print and display capabilities. On the horizon lay the AltiVec wonder of the G4 with its promise of computing power that will astonish us and the P1 portable should be a world-shaking, people liberating product.

Apple is again making the best computers in the world.

We now see an Apple emerging from its also-ran past to again become the leader in practically every part of the personal computing landscape. Even more heartening; this ascendant Apple seems as vibrant and alive as the Apple of old, the one that has twice already revolutionized the personal computing industry. Rescuing us from the boring sameness of the PC hegemony, the new Apple points to a future that is brimming with potential, alive with excitement and full of the old Apple panache that has so enriched our entire culture.

If all this is the result of Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field, so be it. I see nothing base or unpraiseworthy in his making my life a better one by simply helping me believe in the future. Some may dredge through Steve Jobs’ distant past to diminish both the man and his accomplishments, to make him something of a villain even, but by their standards I wouldn’t fare so well either; in the cold light of history who among us would? I’ll not judge a man harshly through a murky lens of revisionism and false myth. I know what he has done for the world, the evidence is all around us. The new life he has breathed into Apple can only be the work of a man with supreme vision and enormous courage; a man that deserves my respect and my heartfelt thanks.

That, my friends, is reality.

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Postscript: This story appeared in my “Difference Engine” column on MacOpionion  -- in 1999. Amazingly, it still works. Steve Jobs bent our view of reality to make our world a better place. I'm so grateful.


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