Jon Rubinstein On Steve Jobs: "I'm Definitely Off The Christmas List"

It was a disaster.

That’s how Palm head (now a part of HP) Jon Rubinstein described Apple when he joined the company in the 1990s after they acquired NeXT. That was about six months before Steve Jobs came back, Rubinstein said. “Basically, the company was going out of business. It had lost its way, its focus,” he continued.

Rubinstein sat down to discuss Palm and HP with John Battelle today at the Web 2.0 Summit. But Battelle decided to focus on Rubinstein’s work with Apple first.

Rubinstein recalled leading hardware engineering for Apple. That included when the iMac launched and the iPod. He said that while Apple was work on iTunes, they took a look at the MP3 devices out there. “They were awful,” he said.

So Jobs tasked Rubinstein with going out and figuring out how to make one of these devices “in the Apple way”. Rubinstein credited the combination of Firewire, small hard drives, cost and quality of displays, and battery technology as all coming together to let the iPod happen. “We created something that we all wanted to have,” he said.

Then, about five years ago, Rubinstein retired from Apple. He was still retired when Palm called to ask him to join. Battelle noted that at the time, there were already plenty of rumors about an “iPod phone”. To that end, he asked if Jobs was mad that one of his top former lieutenants would join a competitor?

I’m definitely off the Christmas list,” Rubinstein quipped.

But Rubinstein noted that Palm in many ways created the space. And like Apple when he joined, they were a company that lost its way. In terms of it being a Palm versus Apple thing, “I’ve never really looked at it that way.