A look back at Steve Jobs' most colorful keynote moments

During a handful of keynote presentations, Jobs... lost his cool a little bit on stage, solidifying them in Apple's keynote hall of fame. Here, Jason Snell remembers two such moments.

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On the occasion of the ninth anniversary of the launch of the iPhone, former Apple PR leader Natalie Kerris tweeted (she works at Twitter now, of course she tweeted) a link to a YouTube video collecting angry Steve Jobs keynote moments. What a shot of nostalgia.

Famously, Steve Jobs could really get mad when out of the public eye. On stage he was generally quite genial, but from time to time Steve really would get visibly mad on stage. A few times it was quite memorable.

A camera-throwing highlight

At Macworld Expo New York in the summer of 2001, Jobs and Apple presented a Keynote that won’t go down as one of the industry’s finest. The highlight—and the part that made the reel of Steve’s greatest angry public moments—was the failure of a digital camera. Or as Macworld’s Philip Michaels wrote afterward:

“When folks file away Macworld Expo 2001, New York Edition, into their noggins, the lasting image probably won’t be Steve Jobs pointing with pride to the new QuickSilver G4 casings or developer after developer taking the stage to sing the praises of Mac OS X. Instead, there’s a good chance that the defining moment of the Wednesday keynote could be the sight of an irritated Jobs tossing a digital camera to an unseen assistant after the confounded thing—the camera, that is, and not the assistant—failed to cooperate in a demo of OS X 10.1’s new built-in support for digital cameras.”

I’d say this has turned out to be accurate. “That time when Steve Jobs threw a digital camera” actually came during a demo of the Image Capture utility, which was added in Mac OS X 10.1. Image Capture is still with us today, and yes, if you attach a digital camera (or plug in the card from a digital camera), you can import media with Image Capture.

Unfortunately, the digital camera didn’t turn on. And Steve grew increasingly frustrated, finally tossing it off the stage to OS X product marketing guy Ken Bereskin, who had shouted instructions about how to turn it on at Steve from the front row. Steve later checked in with Bereskin, asking him if he’d gotten it working, only to be told that the camera’s batteries had popped out on impact. Image Capture lost its moment in the sun. 

steve jobs camera

Here’s Steve, getting ready to throw major shade at Ken Bereskin. And by ‘shade,’ I mean the camera.

But at least that moment was exciting. The truth is, the 2001 Macworld Expo New York keynote was boring. It’s unclear whether Apple intended for there to be more products to show off that ended up not being available at the last minute. (The iPod was a few months away from making its debut.) In those days, one of Apple’s largest challenges was getting the existing Mac user base fired up about OS X. Version 10.0 was slow and not really ready for primetime, but OS X 10.1 promised to be a lot better. (I declared it the “good to go” edition when it shipped in September.) A lot of keynote space was devoted to demos of various apps—Office 10, Warcraft III, InDesign—running on OS X.

Demos make a keynote dull, but the 2001 New York keynote went off a cliff when Apple’s Jon Rubenstein took seemingly forever (“ten minutes... feels like about nine minutes too many,” wrote Michaels) to make a labored explanation of the “megahertz myth”—that the PowerPC processors driving Macs could do more work than Intel processors running at the same speed. Even the pumped-up crowd of Apple fans—keep in mind, Macworld Expo keynotes weren’t populated by press types or developers, but regular ticket-buying members of the public—were bored. 

Or as Michaels summed it up, “You’d have to go back to Gil Amelio’s 1997 San Francisco Macworld Expo address... to find a keynote that failed to bowl over the crowd the way this year’s installment did.” Maybe it’s all for the best that all we remember of it is Steve throwing a camera. 

Everyone stop working

Now let’s move forward to 2010, and the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Steve Jobs is showing off the iPhone 4 and the fourth edition of the iPhone software, now dubbed iOS 4. But his demos on his iPhone aren’t working, because the iPhone can’t connect to a Wi-Fi network properly.

Steve implores everyone in the room to get off of the Wi-Fi, leading me to comment, “I actually think that might be the biggest demo failure in recent Apple memory. Not since Steve threw that digital camera....”. (See? That damned digital camera.) 

steve jobs ios4


Twenty minutes later, it’s time for more demos, and the Wi-Fi is still messed up. This time, Steve informs the crowd that there are 570 Wi-Fi base stations operating in the room. Back in those days, all the press and developers used cellular hotspots to get on the Internet. This was because for a very long time, Apple resisted the idea of live coverage of keynotes. “No blogging,” I was told more than once when I entered an event. (I wasn’t blogging—I relayed information back to the office so that a news story could be updated live. Totally different.) 

In this keynote, Jobs was reaping what Apple’s policy had sowed: Everyone brought their own Wi-Fi based tethering product, and the entire room was swamped. So Jobs demanded that everyone turn off their devices or he wouldn’t be able to do his demos. More chillingly, he demanded that everyone look at their neighbors and investigate if they were complying.

“Steve is telling us to shut off our MiFi, ain’t gonna happen, Steve,” I wrote in the Macworld live blog. I sat on my MiFi, lowered the brightness on my laptop’s screen, and kept on doing my job, as did Dan Moren beside me.

So, funny story. That was the last time Apple failed to attempt to provide Wi-Fi at its events. The first few times it was a little rough, but over time Apple got really good at providing enough Wi-Fi coverage that developers and members of the media could stay online during the keynote. It’s sort of ridiculous that it took until 2010, and a complete failure in a Steve Jobs demo, for that to happen. But with that catastrophic Wi-Fi failure on stage, Apple gave up on its long-invalidated dream of stopping live Internet coverage of its events and decided to enable it instead.

One other Apple change of note in the aftermath of that disaster on stage: Wednesday night in the chat room for the Accidental Tech Podcast, an Apple employee who is known as the “ATP Tipster” said that the reason iOS supports ethernet is because Steve Jobs demanded it after the demo failed. “Engineering got instructions that same day,” the Tipster wrote. To this day if you attach a USB adapter to an iPhone or iPad and then attach a USB-ethernet adapter to that adapter, you can get on a wired network.

Thanks, Steve!

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