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In absentia, Jobs still towers over Macworld

The Mac's original design team gives Steve Jobs a public beating, but on the show floor, the CEO still wins praise from die-hards.

BOSTON--Despite the fact that Apple Computer Chief Executive Steve Jobs chose not to attend the ongoing Macworld conference, the company's mercurial founder still managed to remain at the center of the show's attention.

When Apple announced its decision not to participate in the Macworld Boston conference it became clear Jobs wouldn't occupy his traditional role as the event's opening keynote speaker. Instead, show organizer IDG World Expo put together a reunion of the design team that built the first Macintosh desktop computers at Apple more than 20 years ago.

And rather than giving Jobs credit as a key member of that effort, the panel of designers used the event to repeatedly deride the executive, saying his style of management had threatened the Mac's very existence. The group even parodied Jobs' taste in clothes, draping the executive's trademark black turtleneck and jeans over a chair on the stage to stand in the CEO's place.

"He killed the (Mac) project three times," said Jef Raskin, one of the so-called fathers of the Mac, who began the project that led to the computer's eventual launch in 1984. "We kept the project going in secret."

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Raskin, who left Apple before the Mac's introduction, also offered his theory on why Jobs has gotten more publicity for launching the famous computer than the designers who worked on the original product. His sentiments were typical of those made by the four-man panel, which also featured Mac creators Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson and Jerry Mannock.

"In a world of news, there's a certain effect where people who talk the most and make the money get credit for the great feats of others," Raskin said. Jobs "never understood the user interface, his great idea was putting the Mac in a box, but he never got outside that box again."

The other panelists detailed their experiences with the executive, agreeing at one point that actor Noah Wyle's portrayal of Jobs as an egotistical control freak in the 1999 made-for-TV movie "Pirates of Silicon Valley" was right on the money. Still, the designers mixed in guarded praise for the CEO among their criticisms.

"Steve was a terror, but he was incredibly great as well," Hertzfeld said. "I enjoyed working with him, but not everybody did."

Hertzfeld told an anecdote about being moved by Jobs from his work on the Apple 2 computer to the inaugural Mac project. In the story, Jobs walked by Hertzfeld's desk and simply unplugged the computer he was working on before throwing the machine in the trunk of his Mercedes and driving the designer to a different building where Macs were being developed. In another tale, Mannock described how Jobs would often walk up behind his desk and, on viewing his work, ask the designer, "What is that piece of (garbage)?"

Such tactics may have been what Hertzfeld had in mind in one of several posts he contributed to, adding his voice to the long-standing debate about who, exactly, sired the fabled Macintosh. "Other individuals are responsible for the actual creative work," Hertzfeld wrote in that post, "but Steve's vision, passion for excellence and sheer strength of will, not to mention his awesome powers of persuasion, drove the team to meet or exceed the impossible standards that we set for ourselves."

"Ultimately," Hertzfeld wrote elsewhere in the post, "if any single individual deserves the honor (of being called the Father of the Macintosh), I would have to cast my vote for the obvious choice, Steve Jobs, because the Macintosh never would have happened without him, in anything like the form it did."

Many Mac users at the confab--10,000 are expected to file through Macworld during the next three days--shared a perception of Jobs as a driving force. More than one Apple customer wandering among the exhibits heaped praise on the CEO for resurrecting Apple when he returned to the company in 1996 and touched off its current era of profitability with the launch of the iMac.

William Schroeder, an 83-year-old retired college music professor from Corpus Christi, Texas, said Jobs deserves a lot of the credit for Apple's rebound.

"I've been using (Apple machines) since 1982, and I think he is the inspiration that has always helped the company put good things together," Schroeder said. "Apple was in a terrible slump for the years he was gone, and when he came back, you saw all these new ideas."

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Some Apple customers at the conference said that though Jobs may come off as something of a rogue, they'll continue to believe in the executive's vision as long as the company can produce desirable new products. Andrew Holleron, 35, a member of the Boston Mac User Group, said that when people think of Apple, they often think of Jobs simultaneously.

"He's the focal point for the whole company--you think of the innovation he's brought to Apple, as well as all the great people he's recruited to work there," Holleron said. "Without Jobs' return, the company wouldn't be the same; it could even have been absorbed by someone like Sony or Microsoft."

Brian Dove, a 43-year-old database worker for Boston-based financial services company State Street, summed up his view of Jobs based on the Mac panel's stories and his own experiences in business.

"As an engineer at heart, I sympathize with the designers," he said. "But I've also grown to appreciate that even the best ideas must be marketed and sold in order to succeed, and clearly that's what Jobs has done best at Apple."