Rage that made the machine

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22 June 2017 | 0

Billy MacInnesI must admit I hadn’t heard the story on the origins of Steve Jobs’ decision to get Apple working on a tablet, a decision which led to the creation of the iPad. According to the account in the authorised biography, Steve Jobs, the spur for creating the iPad was his anger at a Microsoft employee who had boasted over dinner that the company had a revolutionary tablet in production.

As the book describes it, Jobs said: “‘This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said, ‘F**k this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be’”.

This week, during an event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, the former head of Apple’s software business, Scott Forstall, put a little more meat on the bones when he revealed that the tablet project had morphed into the iPhone.

“IPhone had a very circuitous route,” he said. “We’d been working on a tablet project, which has a really odd beginning. It began because Steve hated this guy at Microsoft.”

According to Forstall, Jobs shifted from the tablet to the iPhone after a conversation in which they realised phones could have a negative effect on iPod sales. Jobs asked Forstall to shrink the tablet software Apple was working on down to something “small enough for a phone size”.

Jobs was so impressed with what the software team came up with that he decided to create the iPhone ahead of the iPad. And that’s why the iPhone arrived in 2007 and the iPad was launched in 2010.

Now, you could see this story as a cautionary tale about the dangers of irritating Steve Jobs, because the launch of the iPad definitely put a huge spoke in any plans Microsoft might have had for its revolutionary tablet (could the Microsoft employee have been talking about the Courier which was killed off in 2010 before its release).

And you could argue that it showed the strong design ethos at Apple that the company could create a hugely successful tablet merely on the back of Jobs coming back after dinner and deciding to show Microsoft “what a tablet can really be”.

But what it also demonstrates is the law of unintended consequences and those consequences were probably far more damaging to Microsoft than scuppering the software giant’s plans to launch a tablet. Because Jobs had the insight to understand that while the work being done on a tablet was impressive, it would be far more important to the company’s future if it shifted the focus of that work to a phone instead.

So, Apple created the iPhone first, pretty much developed a mass market for smartphones and created a product that became its biggest money-maker. Oh, and it absolutely wrecked any hopes Microsoft might have had to become a player in the smartphone market in the process.

Imagine what would have happened if Jobs had allowed his pique at the Microsoft employee to blind him to the possibilities Apple’s work on tablet software opened up for creating its own phone? The one thing we can say with certainty is that Apple and Microsoft would be in very different positions today.

I don’t know who that Microsoft employee was but it’s probably fair to say that, however unwittingly, he played a very strong role in killing off the company’s tablet and smartphone ambitions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also helped to create the technology giant that is Apple today. They say talk is cheap. Not in this instance.

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