Ancient History: My Press Badge from Apple’s Final COMDEX

How an obscure Apple event marked the end of the company's nightmare era.

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Harry McCracken /

I don’t tend to salt away memorabilia from the (countless) events I’ve attended as a tech journalist. So when I was rummaging through a box of old papers in my garage and came across my press badge for Apple’s event at the COMDEX conference in November, 1996, I was startled. I hadn’t kept it so much as forgotten to get rid it.

I hadn’t, however, forgotten the event itself, a press breakfast held immediately before Steve Jobs returned to the company he co-founded. A month later, Apple would acquire Jobs’ NeXT for $400 million, thereby initiating the sequence of events which would eventually make it the tech industry’s most successful company. But at COMDEX, Apple was still floundering and edging ever closer to disaster.

The breakfast didn’t go well. A mob of journalists showed up, apparently more than Apple was prepared to deal with. (Even when Apple was in bleak shape, a lot of people were really interested in it.) I also recall a bizarrely long delay, once we were all seated, before the briefing began. Once it did, Ellen Hancock, Apple’s chief technology officer and its second-highest profile executive after CEO Gil Amelio, gave a presentation that didn’t impress me.

One thing I had forgotten was the topic of Apple’s COMDEX 1996 news. An InfoWorld article over at Google Book Search reminded me: Hancock said that Apple was going to release a server capable of running Windows NT as well as its own Mac OS. Yup — Apple was betting that its future rested, in part, on building Windows boxes. At the time, it wasn’t an insane strategy — plenty of supposedly savvy pundits were telling the company that it should reinvent itself into a high-end Windows PC company — but I left the breakfast feeling dejected even though I had no particular emotional investment in Apple’s fate.

The badge itself neatly conveys that it was created by an Apple very different from the one we know today. It has the old rainbow-colored logo that Jobs killed in 1998. The “COMDEX” text is rendered in a crude 3D perspective view for no particular reason. There’s a clip-artish image of Las Vegas’s Stratosphere hotel tower, which confused me at first; I don’t remember where the press breakfast was held, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t at the Stratosphere. My friend Jonathan Hirshon, who was involved with Apple’s PR efforts at the time, informs me that Apple held a big COMDEX party at the Stratosphere, which had opened a few months earlier and was already in financial trouble; it went bankrupt two months after the conference.

COMDEX ended on November 22. Owen Linzmayer’s Apple Confidential says that Jobs made initial contact with Amelio just before Thanksgiving,which was on November 28. Their conversation about Apple’s operating-system strategy led to Apple’s acquisition of NeXT a few weeks later.

After Jobs regained full control over Apple in September of 1997, the company wouldn’t have held a breakfast like the one I attended or thrown a bash at the exuberantly tacky Stratosphere. Actually, it wouldn’t attend COMDEX at all: the 1996 show was Apple’s last. (COMDEX itself folded after the 2003 edition.)

Ugly and archaic though my press badge is, it marks Apple’s bottoming out, practically to the day. Having forgotten to toss it out almost seventeen years ago, I have an odd little memento worth preserving.