Greenbrae Boardwalk 1976
As we strolled down the Greenbrae Boardwalk on a beautiful day in April 1976 Steve Jobs could care less about Snowy Egret’s gliding inches above the salt marsh. His focus was relentlessly on the unreleased Apple II.
In Steve’s words the Apple II was going to make the Apple One which I had bought from his garage “look like shit”.
I found his comment confounding since I’d spent the last 3 months building a weather station with the Apple One and it was supposed to be the reason we were meeting.
But I will never forget something Steve said that would go on to become a basic principle of all his future work. When he and Woz unveiled the Apple One in 1975 at the Homebrew Computer Club at Stanford its most amazing feature was the “high resolution” two color graphics. This was 280 x 192 pixel display mode that you had to load from the cassette storage interface. While it only offered four colors–green, violet, black and white–this was far ahead of anything you could buy on the market. Now 280 x 192 is pathetically low res in light of today’s HD displays but for guys like myself in the mid seventies it was totally astounding. It meant I could draw charts of the height of tide, wind speed and solar energy over time for the weather station. That, and the fact I was writing a book about Graphics on the Apple, was what had dragged Steve to drive his VW Bus to meet with me.
But he was not interested in hearing about the weather station and its PIA interface to the Apple’s 6502 processor. Spittle formed at the corners of his mouth as he looked at me with a laser focus.
“We have come up with a way to get 16 color graphics on the Apple II with only 2 chips; no one has managed to do anything like that before.”
I asked why that the number of chips was so important and Steve looked at me like I was a classic “bozo” which was his word for anyone who was not a genius. “Minimizing chips is the cornerstone to the success of the Apple computer. Look at all the other S-100 machines out there are you will see they are stuffed to the gills with parts. But lots of chips means lots of heat, many more points of failure and worse of all high cost.”
Lesson 1. Minimization coupled with elegant design is the key to the success of any product.
This idea of minimalism coupled with outstanding performance and beauty would come to characterize everything he worked on in the future. Steve knew in his gut that the color aspects of the Apple II would delight his customers. Climbing with him on the roof of my houseboat to show the wind speed propeller made of 3 cook’s tablespoons I would have never thought that one day this man would change the world and touch millions of people like no one had in the history of technology.
Steve Jobs was 9 years younger than me and he seemed like a 21 year old kid too full of himself. Yet the hardware that he had created along with Steve Wozniak had so captured my imagination I could not help but feeling awed by his vision. Steve was impressed with what I had done with the Apple One and he was aware of the fact I was a rising star of the computer book publishing world.
“Mitch come down to our Apple headquarters and I’ll give you an Apple II because THAT is the the computer you need to write your graphics book on about.”
A month later I drove down to Cupertino to meet with Steve at Apple’s new head-quarters at 20863 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino Way. He introduced me to Steve Wozniak. I loved Woz, he was a sweet energetic engineer, who at the time seemed to be the alter ego of Jobs. I brought my Apple One with me and he offered to solder the wires to make the second PIA work. I could see Jobs was driving the design goals but Woz was an engineer who, like my friend Larry Brown, could make silicon chips do magical things. Today people don’t know the difference between PNP and a PIMP, but back in the seventies every one was focused on electronics and digital chips were drastically altering the design of everyday things.
Steve offered me a job running the Apple documentation department. He said today’s computer manuals were crap and if I took the offer I could participate in changing the world. And I would become a millionaire from the founding stock options I would get. I told Steve I was thrilled with that idea and asked if I could start a little later than the other people since the drive from Greenbrae to Cupertino was about an hour on a good day. Steve looked at me with a smirk and said “Mitch look around the office and tell me what you see under the desks”. I saw some kind of dark lump and so I asked him what it was. “That is a sleeping bag. No one goes home at Apple, we work 24/7, because that is the only way the world will get changed. If you work here you have to live nearby.”
That was a huge issue for me. I loved the nature of Marin, Mt. Tam where I hiked every weekend, I had a girlfriend in Fairfax and I just didn’t like the Cupertino asphalt jungle. I know today you read that Steve always said follow your dreams and don’t let the noise of other people confuse your vision, but this was already etched in my mind by the Zen philosophy I had studied, as well as the gurus I followed. I had paid my dues writing manuals and wanted to be an author, not a manual writer. Plus money wasn’t everything to me, I needed to enjoy what I did and feel I was creating something great. I had already started a company with Larry that sold biofeedback kits, and from that I’d caught the bug of working for myself. Plus I thought one day I might be a millionaire on my own.
Of course had I taken Steve up on his offer I might have been a multimillionaire but whose counting?
So I thanked Steve for such a great offer but turned down the job. He was not happy with me. I already knew that you don’t piss Steve off so I asked if I could write some articles about the Apple as well as my Computer Graphics Primer and he tasked me with doing an article comparing the Apple II to the Commodore 64. I remember him saying he wanted me to slice the Commodore into tiny pieces with a razor knife until it was bleeding. That seemed like a pretty intense and scary analogy.
I never finished that article.
Stay tuned for more Lessons I learned from Steve.