Steve Jobs interview: One-on-one in 1995

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In April 1995, Steve Jobs, then head of NeXT Computer, was interviewed by the Computerworld Information Technology Awards Foundation, producers of the Computerworld Honors Awards Program, as part of an Oral History project. The wide-ranging interview was conducted by Daniel Morrow, executive director of the awards program.

From his early years -- when he says except for a few key adults 'I would absolutely have ended up in jail' -- to how he felt about Apple in the mid-'90s -- 'The Macintosh will die in another few years [under John Sculley]' -- to his predictions about how the Internet would change the world, this is a rare look at Jobs after his first string of innovations but before he returned to Apple.

Steve, I'd like to begin with some biographical information. Tell us about yourself. Steve Jobs (SJ): I was born in San Francisco, California, USA, planet Earth, February 24, 1955. I can go into a lot of details about my youth, but I don't know that anybody would really care about that too much.

Well they might in three hundred years because all this print is going to disintegrate. Tell me a little bit about your parents, your family; what are the earliest things you remember? In 1955, Eisenhower was still President. I don't remember him but I do remember growing up in the late 50's and early 60's. It was a very interesting time in the United States. America was sort of at its pinnacle of post World War II prosperity and everything had been fairly straight and narrow from haircuts to culture in every way, and it was just starting to broaden into the 60's where things were going to start expanding out in new directions. Everything was still very successful. Very young. America seemed young and naive in many ways to me, from my memories at that time.

So you would have been about five or six years old when John Kennedy was assassinated? I remember John Kennedy being assassinated. I remember the exact moment that I heard he had been shot.

Where were you at the time? I was walking across the grass at my schoolyard going home at about three in the afternoon when somebody yelled that the President had been shot and killed. I must have been about seven or eight years old, I guess, and I knew exactly what it meant. I also remember very much the Cuban Missile Crisis. I probably didn't sleep for three or four nights because I was afraid that if I went to sleep I wouldn't wake up. I guess I was seven years old at the time and I understood exactly what was going on. I think everybody did. It was really a terror that I will never forget, and it probably never really left. I think that everyone felt it at that time.

The other thing was a little bit further back in time. One of the things that built Apple II's was schools buying Apple II's; but even so there was about only 10% of the schools that even had one computer in them in 1979 I think it was. When I grew up I was lucky because I was in Silicon Valley. When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer. It was down at NASA Ames [Research Center]. I didn't see the computer, I saw a terminal and it was theoretically a computer on the other end of the wire. I fell in love with it.

I saw my first desktop computer at Hewlett-Packard which was called the 9100A. It was the first desktop in the world. It ran BASIC and APL, I think. I fell in love with it.

And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.

We saw the rate at which this was happening and the rate at which the school bureaucracies were deciding to buy a computer for the school and it was real slow. We realized that a whole generation of kids was going to go through the school before they even got their first computer, so we thought: The kids can't wait. We wanted to donate a computer to every school in America.

It turns out that there are about a hundred thousand schools in America, about ten thousand high schools, about ninety thousand K through 8. We couldn't afford that as a company. But we studied the law and it turned out that there was a law already on the books, a national law that said that if you donated a piece of scientific instrumentation or computer to a university for educational and research purposes you can take an extra tax deduction. That basically means you don't make any money, you lose some but you don't lose too much. You lose about ten percent.

We thought that if we could apply that law, enhance it a little bit to extend it down to K through 8 and remove the research requirements so it was just educational, then we could give a hundred thousand computers away, one to each school in America and it would cost our company ten million dollars which was a lot of money to us at that time but it was less than a hundred million dollars if we didn't have that. We decided that we were willing to do that.

It was one of the most incredible things I've ever done. We found our local representative, Pete Stark over in East Bay and Pete and a few of us sat down an we wrote a bill. We literally drafted a bill to make these changes. We said "If this law changes we will donate a hundred thousand computers at a cost of ten million dollars to us."

We called it "the kids can't wait bill." Pete Stark introduced it in the House and Senator Danforth introduced it in the Senate and I refused to hire any lobbyists and I went back to Washington myself and I actually walked the halls of Congress for about two weeks, which was the most incredible thing. I met probably two-thirds of the House and over half of the Senate myself and sat down and talked with them.

It was very interesting. I found that the House Members are routinely less intelligent than the Senate and they were much more kneejerk to their constituencies -- which I found initially quite offensive but came to understand later to be a really good idea. Maybe that's what the framers wanted. They weren't supposed to think too much, they were supposed to represent. The Senators are supposed to think a little more. The Bill passed the House with the largest favorable majority of any tax bill in the history of this country. What happened was it was in during Carter's lame duck session and Bob Dole who was then Speaker of the House killed it. He would not bring it to the floor and we ran out of time. We would have had to have started the process over in the next year and I gave up.

However, fortunately something unique happened. California thought this was such a good idea they came to us and said "You don't have to do a thing. We're going to pass a bill that says 'Since you operate in the State of California and pay California Tax, we're going to pass this bill that says that if the federal bill doesn't pass, then you get the tax break in California'. You can do it in California, which is ten thousand schools". So we did. We gave away ten thousand computers in the State of California. We got a whole bunch of the software companies to give away software. We trained teachers for free and monitored this thing over the next few years. It was phenomenal. One of my great experiences and one of my biggest regrets was that really tried to do this on a national level and got so close. I don't think Bob Dole even knew what he was doing but he really unfortunately screwed up here.

That's a great story. That's part of what Apple was about.

On the business side, I was at the Washington Post when the Macintosh was introduced. The Post was an IBM Big Blue Shop and nobody was going to play with it and then the Macintosh infiltrated. There was almost a guerilla movement. It started with ad artists and now the whole front end of the newspaper is being done on Apple machines. Was that fairly common, this guerilla movement? Actually we had no concept of how to sell to corporate America because none of us had come from there. It was like another planet to us. Unfortunately I had to learn all that stuff.

If I only knew [then] what I know now we could have done a lot better. Our attempts to sell to corporate America were just bungled and we ended up just selling to people who just [were] sort of buying a product for its merit not because of the company it came from. I mean everybody was very hooked on Big Blue back then and they bought IBM. There was that famous phrase "You never get fired for buying IBM." We fortunately were able to change a lot of that. And Apple, as you know, I believe, is a bigger supplier of personal computers than IBM. Next: Founding NeXT

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