Tech Industry

Betting on Steve Jobs during Apple's dark days

In the late 1990s when Apple was on the brink of collapse, tech entrepreneur Michael Oh stuck with Apple over Microsoft because of Steve Jobs' leadership and vision.

Many people can vividly remember working on an early Apple personal computer. But Michael Oh's Apple computer infatuation led to a risky work decision that could have ended badly if it weren't for Steve Jobs.

Although Apple is a company at the top of its game now, in the mid and late 1990s, the company was struggling for relevance in an increasingly Windows-dominated world. The conventional view was that its best days were behind it.

Michael Oh Tech Superpowers

While a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oh began offering Mac support services to businesses, first as a side project out of his dorm room and then, in 1995, as a boutique consulting company in a small Newbury Street office in Boston.

It was, by any measure, a questionable move which greatly dismayed Oh's parents since he was leaving graduate school in aeronautical engineering to start the company called Tech Superpowers.

"Even in the consumer space, Apple wasn't a player. They were a bit player in a PC-dominated world. Anyone who said they were significant as a competitor in 1996 or 1997 was actually pretending, they were fooling themselves. And I was in that camp," Oh said today.

Jobs' return to Apple, first as interim CEO in 1997, was a turning point for Oh--and many others--but only in retrospect.

"I remember when Jobs came back as interim CEO, I didn't think to myself everything is going to be better because there's this incredible visionary. His track record had been kind of shaky. He had done some great stuff with the Mac and Apple previously, but he didn't have the products he has under his name now," said Oh.

Oh didn't think about ditching the Apple product line for Windows as many others were doing because the company was so small, it didn't have much to lose. But there was a clear transformation at the company when Jobs returned, which resellers like Tech Superpowers felt downstream.

"It wasn't this decisive thing. It was more this idea that Steve actually understood what was going on in the computer business and he understood how to fix Apple," Oh said.

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A key moment was the MacWorld Expo in Boston in 1997 where Bill Gates made a surprise appearance on screen to announce a $150 million investment in Apple and commitment to write Office applications for the Mac. That partnership "reframed" the Windows versus Mac debate for many Mac followers and was a sign of the changes under way.

Apple went from a company that talked about great products but never delivered, to one that said little but delivered "industry-changing" products, such as the the iMac in 1998, Oh said.

Tech Superpowers, meanwhile, has gone from a scrappy Mac outfit to a company with $4 million in annual revenue. Oh now works from London where the company opened a second office to serve Europe.

"I didn't expect to see the type of growth we've had and that's something I owe everything to Steve," said Oh. "He's obviously impacted my life in a way that few people have had that kind of influence, apart from my parents. It's been incredible."

See Michael Oh's personal telling of his life and Steve Jobs here.