In the time since Steve Jobs’s passing last Wednesday the tech world has been abuzz with tales recounting his storied career, from the early days of creation in his parents’ garage to his final moments as CEO of Apple less than two months ago.  One particular point of history that’s been of interest to me is the return of Jobs to Apple in 1997.  As a longtime Apple user and fan in the 1990s, I had a front row seat to the roller coaster of headlines and CEO shuffling as the company struggled to gain its footing.  After the tenures of John Sculley and Michael Spindler at the helm, Apple picked former National Semiconductor chief Gil Amelio to take over the struggling computer maker in early 1996.

Amelio was not entirely new to Apple by that time.  He had served on its board since 1994 and had seen first hand the issues the company faced.  Just months after taking the leadership position Amelio was in talks with Steve Jobs to buy NeXT (earlier talks with Be Inc. fizzled after Jean-Louis Gassée demanded way more money than Apple was willing to pay).  NeXT offered a mature and robust operating system that would give a huge boost to Apple’s stalled efforts to replace its creaky old system software.  As the story famously goes, the sale was finalized in February, 1997 and Jobs himself orchestrated Amelio’s ouster later that summer.

It is without question that Gil Amelio lacked what it would take to turn Apple into the juggernaut it has become 14 years later.  His compensation as CEO was seen by many as overly lavish, and he was not a visionary the way that Jobs and people like Jonathan Ive would prove to be.  What he was, however, was a realist.  He cut Apple’s workforce by a third, killed off the failing Copland OS development project, and began seriously looking for a life raft that could lift the Macintosh out of the stagnancy that allowed Microsoft to strike with the release of Windows 95.

Maybe Steve Jobs would have found his way back to Apple without Amelio’s efforts, but somehow I doubt it.

History bonus: Have a look at this fascinating article published by Business Week in 1997, just weeks after Jobs returned.

UPDATE (11-08-11): I’m almost finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs, and if his assessment of how the Apple-NeXT deal went down is accurate I stand corrected.  Amelio comes across as a clueless leader with a big ego who was played by Steve Jobs.

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