In the last few days, many have lauded Steve Jobs for his vision and leadership that changed how people use computers, how they consume personal media, and how they communicate with each other. Everyone knows about i-Books, i-Phones, i-Pods and i-Pads.
What is much less known is the fact that Steve Jobs is the godfather of Wi-Fi.
Without Steve Jobs, we might still be plugging our laptops into Ethernet jacks. His personal drive and vision gave wireless Internet its form. How did this happen?
It all began after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996 and his decision to venture from just serving the desktop market to entering the laptop space as well: hence the Apple i-Book was conceived.
However, Steve Jobs would not be Steve Jobs if he was not searching for unique differentiators – and so I received a call from one of his lieutenants to come to Cupertino and present wireless LANs.
At that time, I was working for Lucent Technologies as the General Manager of the Wireless LAN Division. Located in The Netherlands, we were developing and selling the WaveLAN wireless LAN product line with moderate success, but in limited volumes. The applications were very niche oriented: retail point-of-sale, hospitals or schools. At that time, WaveLAN was a separate add-on card and very much a curiosity.
Of course we had tried to go mainstream and negotiated to be integrated into laptops from Dell, Toshiba and others, but the costs were too high and the applications were too limited. There was no vision of a mobile connected world like we have today. We heard the same pushback – “Everyone has Ethernet ports, who needs wireless?”
The Lucent team originally launched the first WaveLAN products in 1991 and had been trying to team up with the PC manufacturers, as integrated wireless connectivity seemed such a no-brainer. But no one got it. There was no spark. There was no dream of the “anywhere anytime” data connection.
This all changed with that single call.
With only two weeks to prepare, on 20 April 1998, I had to present wireless LANs to Steve Jobs, who at that time did not yet have the intimidating reputation he earned in the following years.
Even though it was a well-prepared presentation, I was expecting that it was going to be a tough sell. The opposite turned to be the situation. I put up the first slide, and Steve started talking about what he wanted. After that he said: “Next slide, please”, and then he mentioned all his specific requirements, including the price point that he wanted to sell the wireless feature at ($99) and then he had to leave the meeting.
I remember everybody in the room was baffled, both the Lucent people and the Apple people. To put things in perspective: at that time, the cost to manufacture a WaveLAN card was around $130. Steve’s challenge to us was to get the cost down to about $50, to create sufficient margin for sales and distribution.
That electrifying meeting was the start of a successful joint Apple/Lucent effort that resulted in the launch of the Apple i-Book with wireless LAN and the Airport base station. The key challenges were redesign, integration and working with all suppliers to drive down the cost. Amazingly, in about 6 months time the goal was within reach. It was just a clear example of what a clear vision, the promise of high volumes and purchasing power can do.
More to the vision of Steve Jobs: the launch in 1999 perfectly coincided with the rise of the Internet and the need of people to have Internet access at home, as well as being able to connect multiple PCs in different locations in the home. Within weeks of Apple’s rollout of the new WLAN technology, we received calls for product integration from IBM, Sony, Compaq, HP, Dell, etc.
Because of Steve Job’s vision, today Wi-Fi is a standard feature of every laptop, and of many other devices worldwide.
Would Wi-Fi have existed today without Steve Jobs? Sooner or later, yes, it would have made an impact. However, it was Steve Job’s personal drive that determined when and how it was introduced in the market – and how it became an instantaneous success for Apple!
Cees Links is President & Founder of GreenPeak (http://www.greenpeak.com), and Marketing Chair for the ZigBee RF4CE Alliance (http://www.zigbee.org).