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This Month in Apple History: May
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May 31, 2016, 12:30 PM
Every week, we're tracing the history of Apple in celebration of the company's 40th anniversary. Only, as long as four decades is to live through, it's no time at all for historical research, and especially so now that everything we all do is always documented. Yet, each week in our slice-by-slice account, we are finding hugely-significant or just highly-entertaining moments that we can prove happened, yet nobody can pin down closer than a month.

We have a very good go, but welcome to our chance to mop up everything into one place with some context. We're especially keen to do that with May 1976-2016, because it's the month in history that saw some seismic moves for Apple that we are still feeling the effects of today.

The big one

The short version that you have to already know is that Steve Jobs hired John Sculley to be Apple CEO, and then Sculley chucked him out of his own company. There's more to it than that, of course, and it's been particularly interesting following the real story week-by-week: seeing how in one week of 1984 they were best friends, in the same week or next in 1985 they were at war.

The bromance took a long time to develop, and less time to turn sour, but the key moments were mostly played out across the month of May, in the years 1984 and 1985. At the end of April 1985, Sculley had threatened to quit if Apple's board didn't back him against Steve Jobs, but it took the entire month before Sculley acted.

It's hard to know why, and it's easy to imagine that maybe Sculley was fond of Jobs, or that he was weak. We definitely and repeatedly see that John Sculley was at home in the board room and at sea everywhere else, but having decided he couldn't let Jobs continue to rule Apple, he took a long time to use the board's backing.

Let's give Sculley some days in early May to get things going: it looks like he would have liked to quietly sideline Jobs, and smoothly move Apple into a new corporate organization. On May 23, 1985, though, Steve Jobs told Jean-Louis Gassée he intended to oust Sculley from the company. It's curious now how you can see that as Jobs's biggest mistake, yet simultaneously not blame Gassée for popping over to tell Sculley about it. Gassée says that he did it because a coup would destroy Apple, and he felt the company was bigger than any of them.

Whatever his reasons, he told Sculley of Jobs's plans, and it's interesting that he was the first to do so. For Jobs had been recruiting from the board all through May, and no one else had told Sculley. Maybe the CEO should've taken a lesson from that, but instead he finally went onto the attack.

Jobs had been plotting to make his move on May 24, 1985, when Sculley was supposed to be flying out to China on business. Sculley cancelled that flight on the morning he was due to leave, and instead convened a meeting in which he again went around every board member and again got their backing, so now did the deed. Steve Jobs was effectively stripped of all responsibility, at least over anything worth speaking of.

Curiously, it took another week before this really kicked in: Sculley signed paperwork to this effect on May 31, 1985. It was the same day he unveiled a new organization chart for Apple, which showed Jobs isolated off in a corner.

Here's one we made earlier

Do read This Week in Apple History for the most interesting blow-by-blows in this protracted fight, but for now, let us mess with your head. At the start of May in 1985, Jobs was at Apple and fighting. At the end of May that year, he was officially still at Apple, yet beaten. In the same weeks of May but one decade later, he was back, and he was making the hard choices that Sculley struggled with.

This is the joy of a week-by-week slice: you do get the historical detail, but you get such a different perspective when you end up contrasting one week in different years. You picture Jobs as an out-of-control force before his ousting from Apple, and then you can actually see him as the far more focused and actually impressive force when he came back.

That was from WWDC in 1997, and it was as far from how we expect to see Steve Jobs in that arena as can be. He talks -- actually talks, instead of presents -- and he sits instead of only pacing and pointing at slides. He talks with developers about what has gone wrong with Apple, he tells them some brutal truths that will mean they've each wasted months or years of work, but he also persuasively lays out the future.

That's the future for Apple, and in hindsight he is remarkably prescient. What's more impressive, though, is that he commanded that discussion, and he drove Apple forward through very risky plans, even as the company was within a pixel of dying. For years, Apple had been doing corporate business school techniques to stay alive, and Jobs comes back, invests and invents until Apple is launching itself out of its troubles.

What's in Store

For one example that we still have today, which was as much derided at first as half of Apple's best-ever products, take a look at Steve Jobs in this somewhat different video.

For one thing, the picture quality is even worse. Someone should make a way to record video and keep it for longer than 15 years: that was Steve Jobs presenting in early May 2001. Ever since, we've seen the Genius Bar as the busiest part of the Stores, but of all the stores in all the world, though, the one we like walking into is that glass cube in New York.

You know about the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, and you recognized that famous front. We'd bet you some money you didn't know that a wooden one was built there one night. Or that when Apple executives stood there at 2AM, and thought this seems a bit bigger than they'd expected, a second wooden one was revealed underneath it.

The glass cube you see today is slightly larger than that second wooden one, and you can see the reasons why in This Week in Apple History: May 14 through 20.

-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher)
( Last edited by NewsPoster; May 31, 2016 at 01:52 PM. )
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May 31, 2016, 01:22 PM
"At the start of May in 1985, Jobs was at Apple and fighting. At the end of May that year, he was officially still at Apple, yet beaten. In the middle of May but one year later, he was back, and he was making the hard choices that Sculley struggled with."

I'm confused by this paragraph--in May 1986, Jobs was hard at work on NeXT, and as far as I know he didn't get anywhere near Apple until Amelio bought NeXT in 1997. Did you mean "but one decade later" rather than one year, or is there an event in 1986 that I'm not aware of?
William Gallagher
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May 31, 2016, 01:54 PM
Sorry, Makosuke: I was trying to be clever and got tangled. I'd intended to write this elegant paragraph about one week in this year and one week in another, and completely blew it. I've corrected it now: thank you for spotting it, I'm very grateful.
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