Lessons From WWDC 97

By David Morgenstern  |  Posted 2007-02-08 Print this article Print

As I mentioned at the top of the story, the 1997 reorganization created a stir inside and outside Apple. It was announced at the Apple shareholders meeting in the first full week of Feb. R&D and marketing organizations were moved around among the top brass. Then CEO, Gil Amelio, said the company would trim $400 million in R&D expenses and administrative overhead. Analysts expected cuts of 2,000 to 3,000 employees.
At the meeting that attended, Amelio told the gathering of shareholders and employees that Apple "had to get smaller before we can get bigger."
But how much smaller? A month later, the other step fell and Apple announced the actual cuts. In addition to the 4,100 person layoffs, Apple killed a long list of technologies and products including Mac OS programming tools, its OpenDoc bento-style component document environment; the CyberDog internet application suite; the Open Transport TCP/IP networking framework; and many others. Some of these products, such as OpenDoc and CyberDog, were seen as strategic platforms for third-party developers, particularly ISVs. Do you dare to take eWEEK.coms Apple trivia challenge in honor of the companys 30th anniversary? Click here to read more. Apple R&D was mostly gutted as well. The company had long-standing groups researching all kinds of things, including agent technology, mobile devices, interfaces and buses (remember that IEEE 1394 FireWire was started at Apple). Actually, other cuts occurred later in the year and beyond. For example, this first round left the Newton effort untouched. It was killed in Feb. 1998. Just a couple of months later in mid-May 1997, Apple held its developer conference and laid out its OS roadmap. The big plan was called Rhapsody, which would include a set of "Yellow Box" APIs derived from NeXT OpenStep that would run on PowerPC and Intel processors. Developers were pushed towards Rhapsody, even though almost all customers were using the Classic Mac OS. There were many questions and concerns as might be imagined. Developers were mainly worried on all the work that would be needed to rewrite their products and the foreseeable total lack of customers for this new OS. This Rhapsody Yellow Box plan couldnt hold and a year later, Apple returned to the WWDC with a revamped strategy for Mac OS X. It provided "Carbon" APIs that let Mac programs gain the stability features offered by the Unix-based OS. This improved legacy approach, along with the compatibility "Blue Box" module, pleased Mac developers and customers. Back in 1997, Steve Jobs wandered to a back room at the conference and held an impromptu "fireside chat" with developers. He was still just the co-founder then; Amelio was still the CEO. Unlike the carefully staged events where hes seen nowadays, this was just him talking off the cuff, unscripted. Can Apple succeed without Steve Jobs at the helm? Click here to read more. During this discussion, Jobs expressed a number of watchwords that the company has more or less held to over the past decade. For example, he was heckled by a developer who said that Jobs didnt know anything about fixing Apples problems. Jobs responded by admitting that the heckler was probably right. At the same time, he brought the discussion around to customer values. "Youve got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology—not the other way around. Ive probably made this mistake more than anybody, and Ive got the scar tissue to prove it," Jobs said. Addressing developer concerns about the killing of popular frameworks such as OpenDoc, he said he was sorry for being "one of the people who put a bullet in your technology." This harsh talk didnt sit well with some in the audience. But notice that Jobs wasnt sorry about the decision, rather about of being the decider. OpenDoc and CyberDog may be fine technologies but they were to be put down: Bang, bang. To Jobs, Apple needed to focus, and "focusing is about saying no." Besides, he continued, "the rest of the world wasnt going to use OpenDoc anyway, so why should Apple do it?" Now, you have to smile at that statement, made before a crowd of Apple developers and users in 1997. The rest of the industry was telling Mac users why bother with a computing platform the rest of the world doesnt use. Still, over the years Apple has expanded its support of industry standards in software and hardware. According to Jobs at the time, Apple shouldnt be perceived as different; rather, "its important that Apple is perceived as better." This last note may be the pitch at the WWDC coming in June. With its Intel transition behind it, Apple hardware is as close as its ever been to its PC competition. And with 50 percent of Mac customers saying theyve switched to Apple hardware and software from Windows XP, Apple seems to have turned around some of the perception part of the equation. The new question will be, "Can this all continue when Leopard faces up against Windows Vista?" Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

David Morgenstern is Executive Editor/Special Projects of eWEEK. Previously, he served as the news editor of Ziff Davis Internet and editor for Ziff Davis' Storage Supersite.

In 'the days,' he was an award-winning editor with the heralded MacWEEK newsweekly as well as eMediaweekly, a trade publication for managers of professional digital content creation.

David has also worked on the vendor side of the industry, including companies offering professional displays and color-calibration technology, and Internet video.

He can be reached here.


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