Steve Jobs died yesterday, at age 56, of pancreatic cancer, just weeks after stepping down from his position as chief executive of Apple Inc. The impact of the tech visionary is indisputable and has been reason enough for the National Museum of American History to collect Apple artifacts throughout the co-founder’s career.
I spoke this morning with David K. Allison, associate director of curatorial affairs at the museum, who has a special research interest in the history of information technology. Though none are currently on display, the museum has the marked Jobs’ extraordinary career with the acquisition of multiple Apple products to its permanent collections.
The Apple II, which went on sale in June of 1977, was Apple’s “first big seller,” says Allison. “The Apple II is really best known for being one of the first to run a spreadsheet.”
Released in 1983, the Apple Lisa was a lesser known, intermediate machine. “It was a very expensive machine—too expensive,” says Allison. It didn’t succeed in the marketplace. “But it pioneered many of the ideas that were later made cost effective in the Macintosh,” he says.
When the Apple Macintosh exploded onto the market in 1984, it was billed as “The computer for the rest of us.” Of the Apple artifacts in the museum’s collection, Allison considers the Macintosh to be the most significant. “The Macintosh really introduced the graphic-user interface to the world,” he says. A graphic user interface allows the user to open files and programs by clicking on icons or menu choices with a mouse.”That really pointed personal computing in a new direction,” says Allison. “It was outsold by the PCs when they came along,” he adds. The original selling price of an Apple Macintosh was $2,495. “There was that whole debate over whether computers should be design oriented or business oriented. The profitability for most of history has been on the business side, but those weren’t the cool things to own necessarily,” he says.
Apple Newton and the iPod
After battling with CEO John Sculley for control of the company in 1985, Jobs left Apple, only to return again in 1997. During his absence, in 1993, the company launched its first handheld device. The Newton, as it was called, retailed for $700 and had its bugs. Apple almost went under trying to pioneer handheld technology that essentially over-promised what it could do. ”They almost lost out by doing too much too early,” says Allison. As Time magazine later reported, “Jobs revisited the scene of the crime to reinvent the PDA for the internet age, and wound up with a few devices that would have made the Newton proud: the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.” The museum’s most recent Apple acquisition is an iPod. “I would say the Macintosh, the Newton and then the iPod really are all critical technologies in telling Apple’s story,” says Allison.
On the legacy of Steve Jobs
Allison was involved in the Computerworld Smithsonian Awards, a program lasting 12 years that recognized leaders in the field. In 1995, Steve Jobs was a recipient of the award and was interviewed at that time (bits of the interview have resurfaced in several recent articles). But Allison never had the privilege of meeting Jobs.
“He is clearly one of the iconic innovators of our lifetime,” he says. “How he has been able to mix business savvy and design sensibility, by making his technology something that is really cool and seen as being very appealing to own, for so long with so many different products is, to me, the success of the company. In most cases, his devices weren’t the cheapest. In some cases, they weren’t even technically the best. But his technology was able to rise to the top in terms of desirability in the eyes of many people. Apple has become one of the premier technology companies in the world by really sticking with the notion of how to make things appealing to consumers and also very easy to use,” says Allison.
Editor’s Note: This post was updated to clarify Jobs’ involvement in the release of the Apple Newton.