Twelve Years In the NeXT "Wilderness" Helped Steve Jobs Rebuild Apple

How much of Apple's current success owes itself to Steve Jobs's 12 years of turmoil and failure away from the company as the head of NeXT? A lot, it would seem.

The story's now Silicon Valley legend, but let's revisit it briefly anyway. In May 1985, Steve Jobs was relieved of operational control over Apple, but remained chairman. He resigned soon after to start NeXT, a hardware and software company aimed at high education customers—students and teachers—that would provide them with, in the words of Jobs, a personal mainframe.

It didn't go so well. The products were priced too high and under delivered, and when all was said and done NeXT had only managed to sell about 50,000 in seven years. Multiple vice presidents' heads rolled. Jobs micromanaged so intensely that even the sprinkler heads in the new NeXT building had to get a 20-minute OK while execs from the visiting Businessland waited outside.

What NeXT tried next was software. While not successful in its own right, NeXT's operating system would soon become a part of Apple when it purchased the company 1997. Later, that software helped create what's known today as Mac OS X.

So he was back at Apple by then. What changed? Well, why he may still rub some people the wrong way, the executive team at the current Apple is pretty stable. Jobs, it turns out, learned to not try and do everything himself, said Kevin Compton, former head of Businessland, in an interview with the New York Times.

"He's the same Steve in his passion for excellence, but a new Steve in his understanding of how to empower a large company to realize his vision," Compton said in the interview.

Subtle, to be sure, especially given the number of people who still bristle at the mere mention of Steve Jobs, but without a doubt the old Apple isn't the new one, and that goes for Steve Jobs too.

Oh, and he answers user mail nowadays. That's new too. [NYT]