Steve Jobs wanted Dell to license Mac OS

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Tuesday is the 10th anniversary of Steve Jobs’ passing and industry heavyweights are sharing stories about the late tech guru, with a tidbit from Michael Dell revealing a potential deal that could have reshaped history.

Dell discussed his relationship with Jobs – and his upcoming memoir, “Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader” – in an interview with CNETsaying he first meeting the late Apple co-founder in a computer user group. While this information has been common knowledge for some time, Dell is exposing a commercial offer involving Jobs and Apple that has not been previously reported.

According to Dell, he befriended Jobs in the years following the consolidation of his company’s position as a leader in the PC industry. In 1993, Dell said Jobs visited his home in Texas several times to promote adoption of the Next operating system. Jobs created NeXT after being ousted from Apple, but the expensive workstation and its breakthrough operating system were not enjoying the commercial success it expected.

Dell declined the openings citing a lack of software and consumer interest.

Jobs tried again in 1997 when he returned to Apple as interim CEO after the ailing IT company acquired NeXT, asking Dell to license a version of Mac OS based on NeXT’s Mach software. At the time, Apple engineers ported the OS to an x86 machine.

“He said, look at this – we have this Dell desktop and it’s running Mac OS,” Dell said of the pitch. “Why don’t you license Mac OS? “

Dell was interested and said it would pay a license fee for every PC sold with Mac OS, but Jobs feared the strategy could hamper Apple’s Mac sales. In contrast, Jobs offered to install Mac OS and Windows side-by-side on all Dell computers, allowing customers to choose which system to use. Dell would pay Apple a share of all computer sales for this privilege.

The proposal made no sense to Dell, which notes that it would have to pay Apple licensing fees even if its customers weren’t using Mac OS. In addition, Jobs was unable to guarantee continued access to the software.

“It could have changed the trajectory of Windows and Mac OS on PC,” Dell said. “But obviously they went in a different direction.”

Jobs and Dell were rivals in a cutthroat industry and sometimes traded beards in open speech. For example, when asked what he would do with a then-sub Apple, Dell said in 1997 that he would “shut it down and return the money to the shareholders.”

Despite the public jabs and intense competition, the two have remained friends, Dell said.

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Steven L. Nielsen

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