Steve Jobs - Inventor of a Generation
A century from now Steve Jobs will be remembered alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers and Walt Disney. He ushered the new light of personal information into the world, mass produced it, made it fly and coupled it with new forms of entertainment. Jobs once said that all computers do is pick up and rearrange numbers, but if they do it fast enough, the results appear to be magic. His career was spent packaging that magic into sleek boxes with user friendly form and function.
Jobs was among the first to recognize that computers could be sold to everyone, not just big corporations. One of his great gifts was the ability to understand them from both an engineer's and a user's perspective. He got his start playing with telephone equipment and moved on to computers just as the industry was picking up steam. Growing up in Silicon Valley he was at the center of things. When he was a teenager he cold-called Bill Hewlett, the co-founder of Helett-Packard and talked his way into a summer job.
He started college, then dropped out and traveled to India. He became a Buddhist and experimented with psychedelic drugs. He returned to Silicon Valley. On April Fools' Day 1976, he started Apple with Steve Wozniack. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences,” he once said. “So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.” Bill Gates, he suggested, would be “a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger”.
Somewhere along his incongruous path Jobs developed a love for typography. That love became a defining feature of the Macintosh that Apple launched in 1984. The Mac interface offered a clean blue screen with black type and windows, icons and menus. It was quantumly easier to use than so-called personal computers of the time that were chained to DOS operating systems with displays of harsh green letters and numbers on black screens. The Macintosh should have been a blockbuster success. It wasn't. Jobs was pushed out of the company he founded by its board of directors.
His separation from Apple was a blessing. He went on to co-found a new firm, Pixar, which specialized in computer graphics, and NeXT, another computer-maker.
In 1996 Jobs returned to Apple, when the company acquired NeXT. Apple was then in deep trouble. Business Week wrote, "“The NeXT purchase is too little too late. Apple is already dead.” This sentiment about Apple was echoed by Michael Dell, who said, “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”
Steve Jobs proved them wrong. He put NeXT technology into a new range of Apple products: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Apple briefly became the world’s most valuable listed company. “I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple,” Jobs said.
He was a man ahead of his time. Computing’s early years were dominated by technical types. But Job's obsession with form and function gave him an edge as technology evolved. His broad-based understanding of other fields gave his products a competitive advantage in a world where computing devices are fashion items. When he introduced the iPad 2, in March 2011 he ended his speech saying, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
Beyond a broad based outlook and understanding of technology, Jobs had a monomaniacal obsessive with details. He believed that everything mattered, even the things that nobody sees. He required the first Macintosh to function without an internal cooling fan, so that it would be silent—putting user needs above engineering convenience (this decision led aftermarket suppliers to create bolt-on fans). He called an engineer at Google one weekend to tell him that the color of one letter of Google's on-screen logo on the iPhone was not quite the right shade of yellow. He often wrote or rewrote the text of Apple’s advertisements himself.
Although he presented himself as a Zen-like mystic, Jobs ran Apple like a dictator and had a fierce temper. He didn't believe in market researchers and focus groups, and relied on his own instincts when evaluating potential new products. Jobs had a gift that enabled him to foresee what consumers wanted before they knew they wanted it. He was right far more often than not. Most inventors and entrepreneurs do not have that skill.
Steve Jobs created "insanely great" products and was a model of passion driven entrepreneurship. He showed us that product quality and inspired design add to gross margin rather than subtract from it. He set the standard for what a baby boomer career could be. And he made nerds cool.
He'll be missed.
Steve Jobs (February 24, 1955 – October 5, 2011)
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