The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Apple today announced that its founder and Chairman, Steven P. Jobs, has passed away.  The world has lost one of a kind.

No description really suits Jobs.  He was not just a manager, an inventor, an engineer, an artist, a control freak, a salesman or an inspirational speaker, yet he was in part all of those.  “Visionary” is used most often, yet his obsessive attention to detail can’t be captured by the word.  He had the remarkable mix of instincts, personality and skill that allowed him to lead a consumer products manufacturer that revolutionized the way we use our phone, buy and listen to music and do personal computing.  He was brilliant in a way no one else can be.

From the very beginning, Jobs cared about things no one appreciated in the technology world.  In “Apple: The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders,” James Carlton tells a story of the creation of Apple’s famous rainbow colored, bitten apple logo in Apple’s founding days.  The printers said that if the company inserted a thin-black line between each color to prevent the colors from bleeding into each other, it could significantly shave the cost of printing the logo.  Jobs would have none of it.  He insisted that the colors appear the way it ended up being because it looked much nicer that way,  Michael Scott, Apple’s first CEO, despised the logo, saying it cost millions of valuable dollars for a company that was still a start-up.

Jobs was the first–and really remained the only–person to merge art and mass consumer hardware.  When the company was developing an iMac with a flat screen, he rejected a design that attached the body of the computer to the back of the screen like all manufacturers did.  Instead, he drew inspiration from a flower that he saw while strolling in the garden, which led to a computer whose flat screen floated and could be placed at any angle.

There was also the notoriously overpriced flop PowerMac G4 Cube, which not only was shaped like a cube (his obsession since his NeXT, Inc. days) but also operated without a fan, which, he thought, was much too noisy.  There were small things, too.  The logo in the notebooks were flipped starting with the PowerBook G4 so that it was right-side up while the computer was being used.  The desktop computers minimized clutter by limiting chords and hid the chords in the back to the extent they were unavoidable.

Jobs was not only responsible for beautifully looking products, but also products that worked beautifully simply.  Apple products don’t come with thick instruction manuals.  There’s no need.  The iPhone only has one button, but the interface is intuitive.  The original iPod had a click wheel with only five buttons (I continue to wonder why companies create remotes with separate play and pause buttons).  When Jobs showcased the iTunes Music Store to music industry executives, all major record labels jumped on board because they immediately knew the intuitive interface could bring the age of paid digital music, which was an understatement (Apple is now the largest music seller in the United States).  While Microsoft was busy bloating its software with unwelcome features, Jobs espoused the mantra, “less is more.”  Jobs knew what consumers wanted before consumers even knew.  He didn’t conduct consumer focus groups because “it’s not their job to know what they want.”

What’s striking about the history of the products Jobs brought to this world is that he didn’t create any of them.  He wasn’t the engineer putting together the hardware or the artist designing the casing.  His unique contribution was to be able to say, “that works, that doesn’t” and persist until those who actually created the products made the right thing.

Jobs’ impact, though, wasn’t just in the hardware.  He was also a great salesman with the uncanny ability to draw people.  His Macworld keynote speeches were inspirational, leading to a cult following of the man and his products that bordered on fanatical.  Objective outsiders famously dubbed the effect his speeches had on the audience the “reality distortion field.”  When Jobs announced the first iPod shuffle, a product that looked like it was put together in thirty minutes, he touted the shuffle feature that he claimed everyone loved on the other iPods.  As one newspaper columnist noted then, only Steve Jobs can spin a lack of screen in the music player as a great feature.

As naturally brilliant as Jobs was, he also matured over the years.  He was known for his terrible temper during his first stint at Apple, firing people he didn’t like on the spot.  He didn’t lose that touch when he came back to Apple in 1996.  A story goes that while he was still an advisor, he would demand that a guy he ran into in the elevator justify keeping his job.  Yet his second coming is marked by his lasting legacy as a successful manager.  When he left Apple the first time, he left polarizing figures like Jean-Louis Gassée to carry on the legacy.  In the decade plus since his return, he surrounded himself with trusted subordiantes like Jonathan Ive, Phil Schiller and Tim Cook, all of whom share his vision, ethos and culture yet comport themselves like an executive of a multi-billion dollar corporation rather than a start-up.

The failure of NeXT also taught Jobs that Apple is engaged in a business whose goal is to sell products to consumers who makes decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis.  Jobs of the twenties never understood why no one bought the perfectly engineered, beautifully designed Lisa, priced at $9,995 in 1983 dollars.  Yet when he returned, he ran a disciplined artistic organization, a contradiction in terms because artists pursue perfection, costs be damned.  Perhaps that was Jobs’ greatest gift: he was that rare individual who was an artistic businessman.

Ultimately, what drove Steve Jobs was the desire to change the world. He famously recruited John Scully from Pepsi to become Apple’s CEO by asking “do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?”  And in that cause, he prevailed.  His contribution to the world was uniquely ubiquitous, is indisputably acknowledged and will be eternally remembered.  No other man or corporation has affected the lives of so many people in so many ways.  The world of personal computers, music, phone and tablets were forever made better because of this man.

We will all miss Steve Jobs, not only for the legacy he left, but for the future of what may have been.

Steve Jobs, dead, at the all too young age of 56.

P.S. I thought this was good time to revisit my earlier post on how Apple distinguishes itself as innovator.


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