On September 9, 2014 it seemed the whole world (or at least the people who think they are the whole world in Silicon Valley) was holding its collective breath to find out what Apple Computer was about to announce regarding the iPhone, the Apple Watch, HealthKit, and everything else it might have up its sleeve. Would the screen be bigger? Would the watch enable health tracking? Would any of these products solve world hunger or turn straw into gold? Would they be able to magically provide the answers to ever-burning questions like: How much would could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
As it turned out, it was a pretty meaty announcement on September 9th, launching a bunch of new products that could change the playing field in wearables, sensors, ecommerce payments, and lord knows what else. Consumers everywhere were going crazy declaring their plan to purchase or to shun the newest Apple wares. I got calls from reporters BEFORE the announcement asking me what I thought of it. What I thought of it was, “I don’t know yet as it hasn’t even happened; for God’s sake take a breath.”
Meanwhile, down the road in that self-same land of Silicon Valley on that same day of September 9th, I was having a serious case of déjà vu. For on that day was held the 1st official Regis McKenna Inc. alumni dinner (and associated 75th birthday party for Regis McKenna, Himself, which is the title he used to have on his company business card). For those of you too young to remember (curse you!), Regis was and remains one of the most influential technology marketing and public relations people in history. He was and is the real deal. He was absolutely instrumental in the launch of legions of companies that we now think of as everyday names: Intel, Genetech, AOL and, of course, Apple. Regis McKenna Inc. coined the word “microprocessor,” created the first Apple rainbow logo, and was integrally involved in the launch of the first Mac computer in 1984 (then called the Macintosh 128K), and in every seminal event that happened through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s at that company.
So what? you ask. Well I was lucky enough to have worked at Regis McKenna Inc. (“RMI”), my first grown-up job, back in the days when the Mac was first entering the market. I worked at RMI from 1985-1987 and am quite certain I was the only person at UC Berkeley who had a Mac at my home. No one had really ever heard of it. No one really cared all that much back then. The Mac was a bit of a novelty, originally targeted to sell mainly to the education, and graphic design markets and, of course, at least conceptually, for the home. No one yet believed that homes would have or need computers. The fact that I had one was bizarre and intriguing to my friends, who were still banging away on IBM Selectrics or going to the computer lab to enter cards into a mainframe. The rare student had access to early IBM computers which were far from user-friendly.
The original Mac was launched in 1984 and was the first mass-market personal computer that had a true graphical user interface and used a mouse. It was considered remarkably tiny (it’s screen not that much bigger than the new big screened iPhone 6), but it seemed a marvel, even though it weighed a ton. Yes, it was “portable” but only if you worked out. It was the closest thing the technology world had seen to “user-centered design,” a word in common parlance today. In fact, the IDEO design firm (then known as David Kelley Design) cut its teeth helping create the design for the mouse; IDEO is now knee-deep in the creation of healthcare products of many types.
While I personally didn’t work on the Apple account at RMI except for a brief period, the announcements of their latest and greatest were always a big deal and caused firm-wide excitement. The RMI people who would plan these events with the Apple staff, including Steve Jobs and later John Sculley, would fan the excitement in the office. I got to have a special connection to these Apple announcements for a brief time, as did the approximately 700 other people who worked at RMI in offices around the world.
The September 9th RMI reunion was attended by about 200 of the people who had worked there between 1970 and 2000, when the firm finally changed hands for good. Regis looked exactly the same as he did in the 1980’s. I had been in my very early 20’s when I worked at RMI and made some amazing long-term friends, including my husband. But for the most part, I had not seen those I had worked with for almost 30 years. It was an unbelievable trip to see how everyone had grown up and to realize how young everyone was at the time. It was particularly poignant to think about the reunion in the context of that day’s Apple announcement, Tim Cook’s first big show, which occurred, totally coincidentally, on the same day as this one and only RMI reunion.
Back in the 1980s, when Apple was making its first noticeable waves, it was not clear that anyone would really want a computer at home—whatever would you do with it? There were no cell phones in common use. There were no touch screens. There were no digital music devices. There was no concept that anyone anywhere would have a watch that did anything but mark time. The idea that people would be strapped to wearable sensors that monitored medical conditions or watches that paid for double decaf lattes was the stuff of science fiction. The idea that doctors and patients would use mobile technology for anything medical in nature would have been laughably odd.
Because of that context, I found it pretty comical to listen to how the critics were criticizing Apple for this or that (the screen’s too big, the screen’s too small, the watch is cool, the watch is dumb, blah blah). I was too deep into my nostalgia for those olden days when I wished I could carry my Mac with one hand and not lug it with two hands and deep breaths up my Berkeley apartment stairs. Back in the early 1980’s, Apple was not a market leader or a market maker—it was a cool technology company for the few. Today I can say that my immediate family owns at least a dozen Apple devices among us and that most of my friends are probably just as all-in on the brand. Back then, when Apple talked, everyone said, “wow, that’s cool, now back to IBM.” Today when Apple talks, the world waits breathlessly for the tide to change direction and the earth to shift on its axis. It is quite an amazing thing to see with the perspective of having been close to the early epicenter of the action.
In one of the greatest ironies, at least to me, John Sculley, who was at the RMI office all the time when he was Apple’s CEO, is now a healthcare technology guy; he and I shared a stage at last year’s SXSW conference judging mobile health products. Who would have figured? Isn’t it amazing how things come full circle.