excerpts from @Gassee memories on its years at Apple

Starting Apple France

After two rounds of interviews, I sign my employment agreement over dinner at the (now defunct) Le Duc restaurant in Geneva on December 12th, 1980… the very day of Apple’s IPO.

Undeterred, I land at SFO in February, 1981, and immediately drive down to Apple’s Silicon Valley mothership in Cupertino, CA. When and where is the training course? You know, like at Data General where they run a tight induction curriculum with eliminations along the way?

Nothing of the sort.

Well, how about an Apple ][ I can take to the hotel so I can learn on my own at night? I had pored through the Apple ][ technical documentation on the plane, was struck by the elegant simplicity of Steve Wozniak’s design, and wanted to get moving. … After much hemming and hawing a kind staffer lends me her machine.

I arrive at the Sunnyvale Hilton late at night and am met with apologies… Up in the suite I delicately place the Apple ][ onto the bed (there’s no desk), gently toggle the power switch, and behold the perfection of… VisiCalc.

…seeing my three-piece pinstripe suite and befuddled mien, the officer took pity on me… 

The suit felt out of place as I entered a conference room on what would one day become my first Cupertino office, a building known as Bandley 3. Steve Jobs was sitting cross-legged on a credenza, picking his toenails. I felt relieved, I was leaving the Exxon stiffs and rejoining the tribe of unhinged techies.
…the package labels said AppleWriter, a modestly serviceable word processor written by Paul Lutus. I inquired about sales volumes and found out that Apple had shipped more word processing programs in one month than the entire word-processing industry (where I just came from) in one year.

I had made the right decision.

Pre-EU Common Market regulations simplified the movement of goods across borders, so we used procedures originally designed for vegetables and fruits (pun unintended) to move computers from The Netherlands, a friendlier trading nation, into France. A company called Seedrin (last three letters of my name plus last four of my street) was set up in my name as sole proprietor, with a total capital of 20,000 Francs (about $3K), and given an exclusive contract to take orders and deliver goods from an Apple warehouse situated in an ex-US Military camp in Zeist, Netherlands.… All we needed were offices and a buffer warehouse. We soon located a building that Pharma company Choay no longer needed. Luckily, it was close to my old HP France, a target for recruitment efforts. I soon met Choay’s CEO who demanded to know how a $3K-capital company was going to make rent. I explained that this was just a disguise to go around government hurdles. This, as he thoroughly disliked regulators, pleased him greatly and led him to give us the furniture for free.

Different Apple Distribution Game

The Apple ][ was a fantastic machine; the always-clever marketing campaigns were becoming more insouciant and (in retrospect) “Apple-like”; the distribution logistics hummed along… but there was one thing that bothered me: Sales. Not the sales numbers, but Sales’ attitude towards retailers.

With a long and friendly history with their current distributor Sonotec, a family business run by the avuncular and flexible Georges Zimmeray, they had mixed feelings about Apple taking over its own distribution.

our sales people didn’t work on commission. To add a bit of “competitive encouragement”, I set up a small PFS:File program that tallied daily, weekly, and monthly sales-per-person. Every morning, I printed the latest and passed it out to the entire team

And it was more than just Apple products. In my first Cupertino visit, I chanced upon a demo by French hardware developers Mssrs. Chaillat and Chaligné. They had designed an Apple ][ extension card that bypassed the mediocre native NTSC and, instead, provided a clean RGB display using the French mandated Peritel connector that was available for a number of display devices, included the ubiquitous Trinitron monitor. … This sort of impulse buy wasn’t exactly standard company policy, but the product looked very good, so did the numbers, and Apple management was otherwise preoccupied… a perfect illustration of the freedom and benign neglect that I found so compelling during my years at Apple — in France.

A Resonant Apple France Message

I fondly (and nostalgically) recall how the company published an Apple Magazine with, if my recollection is correct, a story by Johnathan Livingston Seagull’s author Richard Bach in one issue, and a Ray Bradbury poem titled Ode To The Quick Computer in another. I only recall the poem’s last verse: So cowards, what are you afraid of

We got along nicely and he smilingly approved of my simplified view of his trade: Marketing’s primary task is positioning, defining identity. Put another way, if you don’t have a clean, clear, resonant identity, there no story to tell — and your efforts and budgets are wasted.

We zeroed on the raison d’être of Personal Computers, and on what Apple PCs did for humans.
Symbols, the alphabet and Hindu-Arabic numerals were humankind’s one of, if not the, most important inventions. With symbol strings, one could write Elizabethan poetry, religious scriptures, math, physics, Wall Street greed…

Steve Jobs, who would later position Apple at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, called his machines bicycles for the mind. In France, at the time, we used ULMs (Ultralight Motorized planes) as a metaphor.

So, we endeavored to put more specifics on the mind-body extension virtues of our PCs. Because we all need simple, sharp taxonomies, we decided our personal computers helped with five activities: Think, Organize, Communicate, Learn and Play. And we pointed to software products as examples.

Almost Illicit Fun

Lionel’s most notable creation for us was La Fondation Apple pour le Cinéma. When he began outlining the project, I told him we couldn’t possibly afford the cost of such an operation. In fact, he told me, he knew of a need we could inexpensively fulfill: helping young and always cash-strapped movie directors promote their movies. For 30,000 francs (say $20K today) the Foundation could pay for posters on downtown columns advertising movies and theater shows. He’d assemble an unpaid jury of actors and scriptwriters friends, take everyone to Martinique, expenses paid, for a few days of relaxation and movie reviewing, and of naming a winner to be drummed up.

at the Cannes Film Festival, a French radio reporter put a microphone in my face and demanded to know what a computer company had to do with the movie business. This was a golden opportunity to explain how Apple was different, how we stood for tools for creative pursuits, as opposed to instruments of oppression mechanizing office tasks. The gent chuckled, everyone understood what/whom I meant.

While, in the US, Apple marketeers were struggling to promote the company as a worthy opponent to Big Blue and its clones, at Apple France, we decided a frontal attack was the road to perdition. Early in our existence, we had decided to position Apple as providing tools for creative pursuits, only occasionally getting our machines in the forbidden office fortress through the side door…

I need to add this worked in a French culture that didn’t particularly like IBM, and where Apple’s California Chic, helped by Steve Jobs’ already mythicized charisma, made us the People’s Liberation Army From Computing Oppression.

I inserted myself in the heated exchange and asked the unhappy customer if he wanted us to buy his system back because “we couldn’t afford a single unhappy Apple patron…”. The answer was a resounding NO, he wanted to keep his Apple ][. Next, I arranged for the customer to bring the dead system to our service department. As a special favor, we’d recycle a board from an otherwise dead machine and bring his machine back to life. Lastly, I asked for his child’s age. Why? For the t-shirt, of course (Apple t-shirts were items then); I want to thank you for the opportunity to make things right.

From then on, we made giving t-shirts to complainants an unofficial practice.

Because she had an extremely seductive, clear radio voice, my dream was to have her read stories to callers as they waited. She immediately accepted, told me she’d do it for free as a thank you, and that she’d write the stories herself. These were sweet little tales that markedly changed the mood of callers. Some even asked to be put back on hold because they wanted to hear the end of the tale

Mac trouble was to become my opportunity, and an occasion to make a series of cultural mistakes when landing in Cupertino in the Spring of 1985

Mac Hopes And Troubles

It’s November, 1983; I’m sitting in the auditorium at Apple’s worldwide sales meeting in Honolulu. The house lights dim and “1984” begins. Conceived by ad agency Chiat/Day, directed by Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame, and destined to be aired nationally only once (during the 1984 Super Bowl)…

To this day I remember the electrifying effect on the audience, and troubled thoughts regarding mass persuasion —criticized on screen and, without irony, performed right in the room.

Apple’s assembled sales organization was delighted by the Mac’s enchanting presentation, its (almost) never-seen-before user interface. But there was a nervous energy under the surface: Would the Macintosh save Apple from the IBM PC and its clones?

Born in 1981, almost three years before the repeatedly delayed Mac, the 16-bit IBM PC had made mincemeat of the 8-bit Apple ][ (and of the troubled Apple ///). With the introduction of the PC XT and advent of Lotus 1–2–3 in 1983, the competitive situation had become even more severe. The XT sported an integrated hard disk, something Apple machines lacked. …
For a supposedly stodgy company, IBM’s PC marketing was surprisingly clever. They appropriated Charlie Chaplin as a mascot and ran a very successful TV ad campaign that positioned their machine as the personal computer. I was stunned: They’re stealing our song!

Apple replied with cheeky “Welcome IBM” ads. At the time, I felt this was twice mistaken. Not only did it make us sound presumptuous, but why were we spending money advertising the opposition’s ware? (I realized, later, that I was wrong about the former count: It was a good idea to position Apple as an equal — and precursor — of IBM.)

sales of the original 128k Macintosh were hobbled by its relatively high price ($2,495) and the same lack of features that hurt the Apple ][ — no hard disk, no office productivity software, no Lotus 1–2–3.…

By early 1985, Mac sales still weren’t taking off and sinking sales of the Apple ][ were to lead to the shutdown of the company’s Texas manufacturing plant and the company’s first-ever layoff. Something had to be done.

Having gained something of a foothold in the “creative space” and education applications, Jobs thought we could sell the French government on having a large local company such as Thomson take a license to build Macs and sell them to the education market, thus creating a success story and fatter numbers.

I recall how I felt when Mitterrand expressed his vision of Computing For The People: This is our pitch. And we promptly and efficiently took up the refrain. Luckily, our US masters were launching a Kids Can’t Wait marketing blitz targeting the Education market. We piggy-backed on it, called it L’Avenir N’attend Pas (The Future Can’t Wait), exploited government regulations again, and sold beaucoup Apple ][ machines as well as the color monitors we had had “made to measure” by Philips Italy. (The monitors were the idea of Michael Spindler, the recently departed and much-missed friend who was then European Marketing Chief.)

A talk that Sculley gave to our staff describing Apple’s future was the best business talk I had ever heard, and I told him so. I wasn’t flattering him, it was my honest feeling and my hope for the company’s coming years.

To counter the Mac’s perceived and real weakness in business productivity apps, Jobs came up with the concept of a Macintosh Office including a Local Area Network (LAN), a File Server (essentially a networked hard drive), and a networked laser printer. This was vintage Jobs: A grand vision supported by a spectacular demo. Unfortunately, it was only a demo.
I addressed a pair of notes to Sculley in which I dissected Jobs’ story. The Mac Office concept was never going to become a reality (I wrote), and even if the fantasy could be true, it wouldn’t solve our Corporate America market problem.

My memos were not universally well-received, to say the least, but neither was the 1985 Mac Office. (However, the LaserWriter and the AppleTalk LAN were later to become key components of Apple’s Desktop Publishing push.)

Also, strange as it may seem, I was a rarity compared to most Cupertino senior execs: I had actual, repeated computer technology experience. All of the above led to an invitation to move to Cupertino in the Spring of 1985. Or, to put it another way: “Enough criticizing. If you’re so sure, why don’t you come over and help us fix things?”

Hard Landing In Cupertino. Steve Jobs Fired

Initially, I was to work on a putative “Software Division”… The idea was to encourage third-party developers to write software for the Mac, and to help them make a living doing it.

I was to report directly to CEO John Sculley… Caught between the two, I was adamant: I couldn’t work for Apple’s mercurial and controlling co-founder. Previous trips to Cupertino and Jobs’ visits to Europe had convinced me that I didn’t (yet) have the temperament or the inner sense of security to “collaborate” with him.

In the spring of 1985, Jobs brought things to a head by approaching members of Apple’s exec team, asking them to side with him and run Sculley out of town. It backfired; the coup failed and Jobs was deposed. In the reorganization that followed, I became VP of Product Development.

The Jobs I knew in 1985 had no experience outside of Apple. As Bill Gates once felicitously said, “success is a terrible teacher”. … The success of the Apple ][ might have seduced Jobs into believing that he knew…

NeXT was different story. It was a technical success but not a commercial one. When Apple came calling in late 1996… NeXTStep, the company’s foundational software, had lain fallow for some years; the company was focused on WebObjects, a set of software tools aimed at helping businesses develop e-commerce and other web-based applications.

Back to 1985, I found myself in a dangerous, paradoxical position. I, too, lacked experience. I had never run an engineering organization, my knowledge of computer technology was largely acquired on the job and on weekends torturing hardware and software. And yet, I was given the reins to Apple’s engineering organization

The Mac group was ailing but thought of itself as much superior to the “traditional” (read stodgy) Apple ][ engineers, calling them bozos and other charming names. The Apple ][ people thought the Mac folks were a bunch of arrogant, ungrateful bastards. After all (they said), it was the Apple ][ that paid everyone’s salaries; the Mac was just a pretty demo.

My mission was simple — or simple to state, at least: Get the Mac out of the ditch and create a cohesive organization that unites the engineers.

As we’ll see in the next two parts of this series, culture (not technology) and my own emotions were to be the most difficult challenges.

Getting The Mac Out Of The Ditch

When I landed in Cupertino in May 1985, I had a few simple ideas for short and medium improvements that would help sales, and was happily surprised by the support that most of these ideas got inside the engineering community.

I count 30 faces around the conference table. That’s one too many. As Apple’s newly-appointed VP of Product Development, according to a temporary org chart, I start with 29 direct reports…

Engineers liked to call HR the Thought Police, KGB, Gestapo… and insisted these were meliorative nicknames. …tended to create political turmoil as they overplayed their power-behind-the-throne role at the highest levels of the company. Even more regrettably, I allowed myself to get sucked into the turbulence.

May, 1985: Apple ][ sales are falling; the Mac has yet to take off. We need to make some changes, pronto, that will attract new customers and keep the old ones coming back.
…the proposed Apple IIGS (“G” for graphics, “S” for sound) was undeniably superior to earlier Apple ][s and the current Mac, but it used a virtually unknown processor with a doubtful future and offered so-so compatibility with earlier Apple ][ models…

On the Mac side, I suggested we needed to do three things: Implement a few quick improvements that will make the Mac feel more muscular, design an “open” Mac with interface card slots and color display capabilities, and slide a robust operating system kernel under the existing Mac OS.
…made their way into the next Mac offering, the Macintosh Plus, announced in January, 1986. The most important new feature was the incorporation of a SCSI connector that let you plug in an external hard drive. Less conspicuous were double-sided floppies, a larger ROM, and a doubling of internal memory (RAM) to 1MB

Unfortunately, the suggestion that we introduce a kernel into the Mac OS was completely unsuccessful.

I’ll venture that Jobs’ decision to “go light” with the Mac was a result of the Lisa. The Lisa had a proper, home-grown multitasking OS that was far ahead of its time

We didn’t have time to write such a complex piece of code, so we looked at companies such as Hunter & Ready who would license a kernel. Problem almost solved.

But then we realized that the task of delicately lifting the existing Mac software base, disconnecting and reconnecting blood vessels and nerves —that, too, would take time that was beyond our budget…
As we got busy with the short and medium term fixes for the Mac product line, Apple engineer Sam Holland came up with another, longer term idea: Let’s develop a quad processor of our own for future Apple personal computers
To simulate the microprocessor, codenamed Aquarius, we bought a Cray supercomputer and used AT&T Microelectronics as our development partner. This wasn’t the AT&T that we now love to loathe as a wireless carrier, it was the technology giant whose Bell research labs gave us Nobel laureates such as Arno Penzias and Steve Chu, and a long list of inventions including the transistor, cellular telephony, the C programming language, the Unix operating system, the original non-blocking telephone switch and many more.

…Also noteworthy: The AT&T Microelectronics relationship led to the Newton project, and then on to another company’s hardware… but that’s a later chapter.

Cupertino Culture Trouble

Moving from Paris to Cupertino, from running a distribution company to heading Apple’s engineering proved more challenging than I had naively expected.

I land in Cupertino in May 1985 with three strikes against me:
– I’m a true Parisian.
– I’ve been the head of a successful team running Apple France.
– I have no experience running an engineering organization.

… It isn’t just that my unfiltered comments aren’t well received, but that I’m disoriented by the lack of engagement; there’s no ritual give-and-take that ultimately clears the air. It’s as if an invisible steel curtain has descended between the engineers and me.

The ever-present HR parson (felicitous typo gratefully accepted) who’s attached to this new alien suggests that I ask questions rather than give immediate and unmediated feedback. … They wonder why a marketing person is leading Apple’s engineers.

Following the HR rep’s suggestion, I start to ask questions. Actually, a single two-part question: What are you doing, and Why?

For the What, I rely on a variant of my old I Can’t Be Stupid gambit: If I don’t understand what you’re saying, either you don’t actually know what you’re talking about, or you’re withholding something. As for the Why, please don’t say you’re just following orders — I know you have a mind of your own; and don’t hide behind “marketing demanded it” as if you respect marketing. Tell me how your work serves the common purpose. Does it improve performance, reduce cost, increase reliability, forge a killer feature?

…But after the “recalibration” my interactions with the engineers are the best part of my five years in Cupertino. …

The not-best part combines past habits of the heart and mind from my Apple France role, my own insecure, assoholic behavior, and what I perceive to be the fearful incompetence of the marketing side of the house.

I also vociferously disagree with marketing’s obsession with “winning” Corporate America through a frontal attack on IBM and its clones. Indeed, we are doomed if we take that approach, the opposition is too firmly entrenched. I argue that Desktop Publishing is a perfect example of a “side door” approach that’s ready-made for Apple and the Mac. 

The suggestion falls on deaf ears. Not only are my past ventures in field sales dismissed as irrelevant because they happened in an alien country, I’m now seen, by the marketing folks, as a mere techie who has wandered out of the labs. I can’t win.

… One particularly perceptive individual tries to set me straight when I protest that I respect his role. “Indeed, you respect the function…but you show too much disdain for the person.”

But, in the end, the engineers’ strong work saves me.

In March 1987, we announce the Mac II; the Open Mac promised on my license plate; and the Mac SE, an evolution of the original Mac with an internal disk drive. (The machine earns us justified gibes for its noisy fan, but it sells quite well, nonetheless.)

…getting promoted to a broader role greased the path to my exit from Apple.
Firing Frankness

My boss asks me what I really think of him. HR advises me to tell the truth. I’m fired.

As we wait for our cars, Sullivan puts his arm around my shoulder: “Jean-Louis, I’m proud of you…” After half a decade in Cupertino, I know what this means: What I have done is irreparable.

Soon, engineers are marching outside with placards that read Jean-Louis Don’t Go.
The demonstration, small and brief as it is, changes the course of what should have been a typical, quick departure. Apple management is concerned that some engineers might elect to follow me, wherever I may land. My protest that I wouldn’t dream of such a thing is met with disbelief (perhaps I was a bit too sincere). As a result, the terms of my departure are altered: I’m asked to “stay around” until the end of the company’s fiscal year in September.

Thus begins a paradoxically pleasant eight months. As a minister without a portfolio, I’m occasionally called upon to offer clarification on unimportant issues, but otherwise I have little to do. Some HR staffers who had their own views of my firing are sympathetic; they ask me what the company can do to make my “stay” more comfortable. Perhaps I’d be interested in courses on Japanese calligraphy and conversation?

He had been my benefactor in the past, and he’s still the boss. When the general and his lieutenant disagree too much, the lieutenant must go. Sculley has made the right decision.

It had taken less than three years to go from the high of shipping the Mac II and the Mac SE to the fateful dinner.

He wants to form a new company that will develop a tablet featuring handwriting recognition. I should give him a pep talk, point out that Apple is in great shape with so many interesting projects ahead of us. Without thinking, I ask him if he needs a CEO.

…a dedicated building on Cupertino’s Bubb Road. Thus, the Newton project is born.

My responsibilities are expanded, a fancy “Senior” is added to my title…

Another project, the Mac Portable, isn’t as successful. Convinced it’s going to be too big and heavy, I want to bench the project lead and ask Sony to partner with us to develop a much smaller portable Mac. …I get strong push back on the proposed moves, complete with accusations of being anti-American. I lose my nerve and capitulate. … (I get the last laugh, however: In October, 1991, the PowerBook 100, the “tenth greatest PC of all time”, is released…designed and manufactured by Sony.)

… Just for crossing the street, I’m rewarded with an even fancier President (of Apple Products) title, and add Manufacturing and Product Marketing to my portfolio. The Manufacturing part is especially exciting: I can’t wait to head over to the factory to “work” on the production line…where I immediately embarrass myself by puncturing the loudspeaker while affixing a part to the Mac’s front bezel.

…Some of the other execs question the value of working a few days on the line: How much can I really learn there? “Certainly more than if I hadn’t,” is my defiant answer.

By this time I’m really on the ropes, politically. Proximity to the executives has proven to be the diplomatic disaster I had anticipated; my “raise prices” advice is openly scorned; my behavior is considered strange, almost embarrassing. So imagine my surprise when I get the highest exec bonus for the fiscal year ending in September. I feel vindicated, but the bonus is actually just a cadeau de rupture, a breakup gift. The next January, Sculley invites me to dinner in Palo Alto.

During my calligraphy hiatus, I briefly contemplate an offer to be moved back to France, perhaps as the head of Apple Europe, an arrangement that would appear less spectacular than being fired. But after a rainy Sunday afternoon spent reading Barbarians At The Gate, and an animated evening dinner with a group of French expats, including Philippe Kahn and Eric Benhamou, I realize: “This is where I want to be and what I want to do.”