The Return

Eric Schmidt on Steve Jobs


Everyone knows the transaction where the board sided with John Sculley and Steve left Apple (AAPL). Steve sold all of his Apple stock, kept one share, and founded NeXT. Typical Steve maneuver. When I was still at Sun Microsystems, I visited him at NeXT—we did a bunch of deals with him. He was exactly the same way he was at Apple: strongly opinionated, knew what he was doing. He was so passionate about object-oriented programming. He had this extraordinary depth. I have a PhD in this area, and he was so charismatic he could convince me of things I didn’t actually believe.

I should tell you this story. We’re in a meeting at NeXT, before Steve went back to Apple. I’ve got my chief scientist. After the meeting, we leave and try to unravel the argument to figure out where Steve was wrong—because he was obviously wrong. And we couldn’t do it. We’re standing in the parking lot. He sees us from his office, and he comes back out to argue with us some more. It was over a technical issue involving Objective C, a computer language. Why he would care about this was beyond me. I’ve never seen that kind of passion.

At NeXT he built this platform—a powerful workstation platform for the kind of computing that I was doing, enterprise computing. When he came back to Apple, he was able to take the technology he invented at NeXT and sort of slide it underneath the Mac platform. So today, if I dig deep inside my Mac, I can find all of that NeXT technology. Now, this may not be of interest to users, but without the ability to do that the Mac would have died. I was surprised that he was able to do that. But he did it.

When he went to Apple, he was basically down to 1 percent market share. Apple was near bankruptcy, the company had been for sale, there were a series of management changes. I talked to him about it. He said, “The thing that I have that no one else has is very loyal customers.” He had these fanatical people who would line up all night for a product that wasn’t any good. He figured correctly that by upgrading and investing in and broadening the portfolio, he could do it. At some level he foresaw the next 10 years.

What I remember thinking at the time is that you shouldn’t take a job unless you know how to win. I had no clue how to do what he did. When somebody tells you they’re going to do something and you say, “I don’t understand how you’re going to do that,” and they succeed? That is the ultimate humbling experience. My interactions with Steve were always like that. He was always ahead of me. When he started working on tablets, I said nobody really likes tablets. The tablets that existed were just not very good. Steve said: “No, we can build one.” One of the things about Steve is, he was always in the realm of possibility. There was a set of assumptions that Steve would make that were never crazy. They were just ahead of me.

I joined Apple’s board after the Apple Stores started. It used to be that you would go to a store and you had Macs and PCs. And then, because of volume and because of the Microsoft (MSFT) monopoly, people were not buying any Macs. There was less and less distribution, and many dual Mac-PC distributors were going away. The argument at the time was you shouldn’t screw your distributors because they are your lifeline. Steve made the calculated decision to open a series of stores and turn it into a sort of a consumer lifestyle. He also understood that people had trouble with computers, and they wanted to go to a place where somebody could help them. The stores were universally derided as the stupidest idea ever known to man, and they would literally bankrupt the company. It was an incredibly gutsy move. And Apple Stores I believe are the highest-grossing stores in America.

It took enormous courage for Steve to go through the operations, the treatments—without violating his privacy, it’s just horrific what he had to go through. I think he made all the board meetings I was at. He was obviously ill sometimes, and sometimes he was fine. But Apple was his passion, along with his family. There was never any question when I was there as to his ability to do his job, and I just felt terribly sorry for him, as everyone else did, over what he was going through physically.

Steve and I were talking about children one time, and he said the problem with children is that they carry your heart with them. The exact phrase was, “It’s your heart running around outside your body.” That’s a Steve Jobs quote. He had a level of perception about feelings and emotions that was far beyond anything I’ve met in my entire life. His legacy will last for many years, through people he’s trained and people he’s influenced. But what death means is you can’t call—you can’t call him. It’s a loss. I’ll miss talking to him.

— As told to Jim Aley and Brad Wieners            


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