The heart of Steve Jobs continues to beat in the acquisition of Beats Electronics by Apple. Music was integral to Jobs’s vision of what computers should do: sing and make us dance along. Subliminally, that’s maybe why Apple was named Apple.
In the late 80s, when I met Jobs, I was marketing director for a telecom software company called Software Ventures. Our software, MicroPhone, was one of the few commercial packages that allowed computer users to communicate online, with channels akin to sluggish country roads as contrasted with 21st century superhighways. MicroPhone only ran on the Macintosh computer. In those days, a small company, such as ours, even though it was funded by William R. Hearst III’s parents – had to choose between Microsoft and Apple, Windows and Macintosh, if it wanted to rein in development and marketing costs.
Steve Jobs had started NeXT after he had been fired from Apple, and a friend of mine, tech journalist Dan Ruby, became editor of NeXTWorld, a magazine covering all things NeXT. John Perry Barlow, who introduced himself at a Comdex party I used to host for our company as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead (I didn’t know who they were, which blew Barlow’s mind as well as his come-on.), wrote articles for NeXTWorld as well, transforming it into the most literary of computer magazines before the advent of Wired.
One day, a friend of mine, Raines Cohen, who had co-founded BMUG, the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, where I also served as a board member, asked me if I’d like to travel across the bay for a meeting of the NeXT Computer Users Group at Stanford. I’ll never forgot that meeting because a former Reed College (my alma mater) professor, Richard Crandall, who was now working for NeXT, talked about the importance of making computers capable of storing and playing music.
That sold me on NeXT. Except I didn’t have the cash – I think it was $4,000 a computer – to buy one of the cube-shaped black boxes, which not only played music but also had the complete works of Shakespeare (not my favorite writer, but still what a deal), the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, which at the time cost hundreds of dollars to buy as a set of CD-ROMs.
The CEO of Software Ventures wanted to meet Jobs, and I wanted a NeXT. We knew that Jobs wanted a telecommunications program and we had the best selling version for the Macintosh. So we decided to offer to build him a version for the NeXT.
He bit and invited us over to NeXT headquarters in Redwood City, just off the freeway and adjacent to the bay. Most computer buildings in those days were designed by the kind of people who built prisons and shipping containers, nothing like the work places you find in today’s Google and Facebook sites.
NeXT was like a Japanese Zen center: the exterior looked as if it were built of white marble (and maybe it was) punctuated by enormous sheets of glass, and we tiptoed past carefully arranged white pebbles to get to the entrance. The interior corridors were wide enough for an elephant stampede, and along the walls, as in a photo gallery, hung exquisite prints by Ansel Adams.
After a short wait, Jobs strode toward us in some kind of designer suit with his hair angled diagonally over one eye like John Lennon’s. He was carrying a slim black case and flashing a showman’s smile; then, after a baiting us with the words used by salesmen and revolutionaries throughout history, he opened the case to show us a presentation of the capabilities of the NeXT. We ended up making a deal: we’d port MicroPhone to the NeXT within one year in exchange for four NeXT computers and the weekly visit of a NeXT programmer.
When the computers arrived at our office, situated in an apartment building on Claremont Avenue in Berkeley, right beneath the Claremont Hotel & Resort, I got a computer for myself. It turns out the operating system – which was later sold to Apple – was non-user friendly, so all I could do on this machine was listen to selected Bach recordings and look up entries in the OED and Britannica. And read Shakespeare’s plays.
After a while, the cube became a coffee cup holder rather than a music player or knowledge provider. That’s because the Internet and iTunes and the Beats were still to come.