Apple He built it

You Are Underestimating the Future

I do this talk called “The Engineer, The Designer, and The Dictator”, and it’s a talk about the things I love. It’s a little bit about the nature of engineers and why I think we might have more power than we deserve. I talk about designers, the creators of art, and how I want the engineers and designers to party together more. Lastly, I talk about the importance of dictators — forces of nature whose vision is terrifyingly clear and whom we willingly follow even though we’re a little scared of them. I explain how a dictator mediates the battle between art and science with a curious mind, an iron fist, and taste.

Yeah, it’s about Steve.

My first thought as I stared long and hard at Apple’s home page yesterday wasn’t a specific Steve story or one of his many insightful quotes. The thought was…

You are underestimating the future. You are fretting about the now; worrying about little things that don’t matter. You are wasting precious energy obsessing over irrelevant details. You don’t believe that a better future is out there and can be built, that it can exceed people’s expectations, because you’re spending so much time considering the truth of the present and the seemingly important lessons of the past.

You are underestimating the future because you believe you cannot see it, but you can – you’ve seen it done before.

My favorite video of Steve was shortly after his return to Apple. He wasn’t CEO yet; he was still consulting and was speaking on the last day of 1997’s WWDC. It wasn’t a prepared speech; it was Q&A, an open microphone where anyone could apparently ask Steve Jobs anything. (Steve starts at 2:12)

I’ve watched this video a few times, and what consistently impressed me wasn’t just his ability to elegantly answer random and sometimes hostile questions from an audience, it was the fact that it was abundantly clear what he wanted Apple to be. Again: 1997.

I was an Apple employee for eight and half years and I didn’t see the video until after I’d left the company. For those who worked there and for those who have watched Apple’s success, what resonates from this crackly old video is that it was clear that Steve could see the future. He may have given features, products, and strategies different names at the time, but so much of what Apple has become is described in a video from almost 14 years ago.

Steve didn’t underestimate the future; he could see it, and, more importantly, he built it.

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25 Responses

  1. Marshall 5 years ago

    One thing that struck me: “When you get up in the morning, and the press is selling Apple short – go out and buy some shares”

    If you had followed that advice, you could retire today.

    Closing price May 16, 1997: $4.3125 (the day of this talk)

    Closing price October 5, 2011: $379

    Return for those 14.5 years: somewhat more than 35%/year

  2. Wonderful Quote! I would like to share, but looking for the source of it … can you help?

  3. Randy 5 years ago

    Marshall, are you taking the two stock splits between now and then into account? I’m not 100% on my math but I’m getting a roughly 50% annualized rate of return.

    In other words: 1000 shares purchased on May 16, 1997 would cost $4,312.50, and would now be 4000 shares worth $1.509 million. Which makes me really, really wish I’d had some money back then (though, given that I was in the ninth grade at the time, I likely would’ve blown it on something stupid)

  4. Randy 5 years ago

    Never mind – it turns out my historical prices were split-adjusted already. Whoops.

    (This is why I don’t mess with stocks)

  5. I’m sorry mis-reading your post. I now realize that is not a Steve quote, that is your thought. So wonderful. That seems to perfectly capture his spirit.

  6. What amazed me about this video, aside from Steve’s prescience and ability to think on his feet, was how damn good each of the questions was. These days it seems that audience members are prone to blather on and make speeches in their questions. But almost every question here was astoundingly concise and to the point. That alone should have been a tip for me to buy Apple stock back then.

  7. Martin 5 years ago

    “If you had followed that advice, you could retire today.”

    That’s almost exactly what I did. I bought the first week of July 1997, just prior to MW Boston. 300 shares at the time at $13/share ($3900 + commission – we had $4K to invest) which was a intraday low based on a rumor that Steve had sold off all of his Apple shares that he got in the NeXT deal a week or so prior. I think Apple was trading below book value and it was fantastically lucky timing. A month later it had nearly doubled in value after the MSFT investment and we nearly sold, but decided to hold on a while longer. Up and down it went, growth, then collapse, and then the iPod showed up…

    We never sold and that’s now 1200 shares worth $478K. Won’t be able to retire off that but it’ll get the kids through college.

  8. Nathan 5 years ago

    “I don’t need a hard disk in my computer if I can get to it over the internet.” 14.5 years later: iCloud.

  9. frick 5 years ago

    Incredible. I loved that he ended the keynote with “Ripple”

  10. Ed Smithe 5 years ago

    It’s not about seeing the future, it’s about understanding possibilities. What Jobs did was understand what was possible and work his way back to the present. This video is excellent, but there is a far better quote that he delivered in his speech to Stanford University:

    “You can’t connect dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

    That is a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. Indeed Jobs understood the way in which the world, or rather the universe, actually works. Again, it is about possibilities, not predictions.

  11. Initial takeaway as I listen?

    “Lousy engineering management.” “People going off in 18 different directions doing arguably interesting things. Good engineers, lousy management.” “The total is less than the sum of the parts.”

    It sounds like the Google of today.

  12. Michael Skinner 5 years ago

    Steve didn’t just see the future, because of his wealth and access, he basically lived it. In the video, he talks about having 100baseT Ethernet, rich email, network home directory, etc. 8 years before returning to Apple, and a T1 at his house in the mid 90’s!. I experienced this same epiphany much later in 1997 when I bought a used NeXT Color Turbo Slab running NeXTStep 3.3 to see what the future Mac OS might be like. On booting that five year old machine for the first time, I suddenly felt propelled 10 years into the future. I didn’t feel that sensation again until my first iPhone. Finally, late in Steve’s life, he democratized the feeling of living in the future. Everyone who uses an iPhone or iPad now, and especially I think when Siri arrives, can live in the future. Typing this on my iPad now, and still can’t believe it actually exists. Every time I use it, I feel like I am in an episode of Star Trek.

  13. A number of Steve’s interviews are scary in how prescient they are. I mean if you look at Bill Gates’ contemporaneous interviews, the difference in vision is quite stark.

  14. Tim McDaniel 5 years ago

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this video.

    The most amazing thing to me was the question/response at about the 50-minute mark…the person who told Steve that he didn’t know what he was talking about, and Steve’s amazingly composed, self-deprecating, and wise response. I’d love to know if that guy is still around and when he finally realized how wrong he was.

  15. Love what Jobs accomplished. Love my multitudinous Apple devices. Love this video/Q&A with the engineers.

    However, I wouldn’t credit him with inventing these ideas. He was living in them because he was working with well financed companies. I worked at Bell Labs Allentown in the late 80s. I actually watched Scott McNeilly give a sales pitch to the Design and Engineering Services department pitching his sparcstation pizza boxes and using NSF home directories.

    What Jobs realized is that there would come a point that all of this would be affordable and available to the common person. That does take quite a bit of insight. Making it user friendly takes a lot of hard work. However he did not invent these thing, just like he did not invent the mo3 player.

    It seems so much bigger because it is a series of inter-tangled services rather than one describe device.

    I will miss his contributions to my life which has given me much joy.

  16. Hamranhansenhansen 5 years ago

    > However, I wouldn’t credit him with inventing these ideas.

    > He was living in them because he was working with well

    > financed companies.

    He was living them because he was a NeXT user for 10 years at that point, and he was the one who insisted those features be put into the NeXT system, even though it was a computer for non- computer scientists to use, like Steve Jobs or Tim Berners-Lee or millions since then.

    Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent TCP/IP or DNS, he just made then useful to everyone instead of a small technical priesthood because he started with the user and worked back towards the technology, which is exactly what Steve Jobs always said you should do. That is what gave us the future, not technology demos. Without the Mac or the Web, we would still have computers and the Internet, but we would be in a very different future.

  17. Matthew Frederick 5 years ago

    Jobs wasn’t prescient here; as John Siracusa ably pointed out in the last episode of Hypercritical, Jobs saw what could be done with technology and then made it happen at Apple.

    It’s not predicting the future when you conceive of a great plan and implement it, that’s genius vision and leadership.

  18. It’s not that Steve could foresee the future, it’s that he made it happen the way he imagined it.

  19. Scott Cooper 5 years ago

    It’s like William Gibson’s famous quote was about Steve, and then Steve took it as a personal challenge to make it happen.

  20. I don’t understand – over and over again Steve mentions that he wants people to build their own hardware and not be forced to use Apple hardware to run Mac. Why hasn’t this ever happened?

  21. Watching this video was great. What made it better was that Steve’s vision enabled me to watch it on my tv via AirPlay from my iPad. Neither of them have moving parts, and I don’t need to care about any of the internal technologies that made this happen.

    It still surprises me that most software/hardware companies don’t live in a world where people want to DO THINGS, not plug in, and build, and install and initiate. It just needs to work.

  22. @Roman Steve Jobs wasn’t telling people to build their own hardware. He was saying the OEMs who built Mac clones should take on the responsibility for building their own hardware instead of relying on Apple and that they should pay higher rates for licensing the OS. Not long after Steve Jobs took over as CEO of Apple, he axed the clones and that entire experiment, trying to emulate Microsoft’s business model, was finished. In hindsight, it was the right decision for Jobs to end the clones when he had the power to do so.

  23. Think Again 5 years ago

    As someone said, we tend to overstimate technology 2 years in the future, and underestimate technology 10 years in the future

  24. We are not far off from students carrying iPads to class instead of notebads and books. Amazing when you consider that just a couple of years ago there was no tablet market. Now look how big it is.

  25. Really cool post. Thank you for posting.