The Day Steve Jobs Was Wrong

The Day Steve Jobs Was Wrong

It happened in 1997. Can’t quite remember exactly when or where. It doesn’t show up on Google, so I’m thinking it came at some internal Apple event or agency meeting.

Though some details are hazy, I remember Steve Jobs’ words precisely, because they were sober and stinging: “The battle for the desktop is over. And we lost.” *

Of course, he wasn’t tossing in the towel. He was simply trying to dispel the “beat Microsoft” mentality that still lingered in the Cupertino halls. What Apple needed more than anything was to be Apple again.

He compared Apple to BMW, which owned less than 5% of the world’s car market, but was still one of the world’s great brands. This was Steve’s vision: to cede quantity, but stun the world with quality and innovation.

Flash forward about 13 years and we find that the vision wasn’t exactly 20/20. It turns out that the desktop war wasn’t lost – it simply became irrelevant.

Technically speaking, the desktop war remains lost. Microsoft continues to own about 90% of it. Yet Apple is the most valuable technology company on the planet, and Microsoft now fights off the perception that it’s on the oblivion express. A thought that was unthinkable just a year or two ago.

Microsoft hauls in the cash with Windows 7, but plays second fiddle to Apple in music players, smartphones and tablets – consumer technologies that are all changing the face of business.

Funny, you don’t hear people talking about how Apple lost the desktop wars anymore. Certainly not Steve.

* At Macworld Boston in 1997, Steve did say “Microsoft won. The OS wars are over.” Close enough.

Ken Segall is a creative director who’s had more than a few adventures in technology marketing, including branding, product naming and strategy. He has a long history with Apple and NeXT—where he took a blood oath to uphold the principles of simplicity. You can read more of his writing at Observatory and Scoopertino.