14 Years Ago, Steve Jobs Sent the Most Important Email in the History of Business

Apple’s trial with Epic has been over for almost two weeks, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still learning interesting things about the world’s most valuable company. Largely, that’s because of the volume of evidence that has made publicly available through testimony and documents. 

One particularly interesting example is an email exchange from 2007 between Steve Jobs, then the CEO of Apple, and Bertrand Serlet, the company’s SVP of software engineering. It reveals a conversation about the things Apple needed to do to allow third-party apps on the iPhone. 

Until that point, the iPhone ran only 16 apps pre-installed on every device. Jobs had famously told developers that if they wanted to create apps for the iPhone, they could make web apps that ran in Safari. 

“And guess what?” Jobs said. “There’s no SDK that you need! You’ve got everything you need if you know how to write apps using the most modern web standards to write amazing apps for the iPhone today. So developers, we think we’ve got a very sweet story for you. You can begin building your iPhone apps today.”

Except web apps aren’t the same as native apps, and users immediately set about finding ways to jailbreak their devices to get apps on them. Apple had really no choice but to find a way to make it possible to develop apps through some kind of official SDK. 

Serlet laid out a series of considerations about protecting users, creating a development platform, and ensuring that the APIs needed were sustainable and documented. The list had only four things, but the point Serlet was trying to make is that it is important to Apple to “do it right this time, rather than rush a half-cooked story with no real support.” 

Steve Jobs’s reply was just one sentence long: “Sure, as long as we can roll it all out at Macworld on Jan 15, 2008.” 

That’s it. That was the entire response.  

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Serlet’s email is dated October 2, 2007. That means Jobs was giving him just over three months. Three months to do what the software engineer no doubt believed were critical steps if Apple was going to support apps on a platform that would eventually grow to over a billion devices worldwide and become one of the most valuable businesses of all time. 

As if that weren’t enough pressure, two weeks later, on October 17, Jobs publicly told developers that there would be an SDK available by February 2008. It turns out it would actually be made available in March, and the App Store would launch later in July of that year.  

At the time, Apple’s market cap was around $150 billion. Today, it’s more than $2 trillion, largely based on the success of the iPhone, which is based–at least in part–on the success of the App Store.For that reason alone, I think it’s fair to say–in hindsight–that Jobs’s one-sentence reply has proved to be the most important email in the history of business. At that point, the iPhone had been in users’ hands for barely over three months (it was introduced in January 2007, but was released on June 29 of that year). 

Of course, at the time, no one could have imagined how much a part of our everyday lives the iPhone and the iOS App Store would become. No one could have imagined there would be a billion of them in use around the world. Certainly, no one could have predicted what apps people would develop and what businesses it would make possible. 

Uber. Instagram. SnapChat. Spotify. None of them would exist–at least not as they do today–if it weren’t for the ability to create third-party apps on the iPhone. 

I don’t mean to imply that those developers owe Apple anything–that’s an entirely different debate altogether, and it’s one that is being fought elsewhere already. I mention them only to highlight the magnitude of the decision Apple made when it opened up its platform to developers.  

That’s what makes Jobs’s response so striking. His primary concern was that it be done in time to announce at Macworld. Basically, he’s saying, “Yeah, I don’t care–just do what you have to do to make it happen.”

There’s actually a great lesson here. I don’t know if Jobs was angry that it took longer than Apple had promised, or longer than he told Serlet he expected it to happen. I do know that many of the most amazing endeavors happen because they have a deadline. In fact, I’d argue that creativity flourishes under the pressure of a deadline. Certainly, Apple has. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the iPhone’s release date. It was June 29, 2007, not July 29, 2007.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.