The second, and possibly final,
conclusion of Steve Jobs run as Apple’s CEO shook the world in ways that would
only surprise those still not paying attention. His sudden retirement from the
company he helped found, no doubt brought upon by what many are calling a
re-occurrence of his pancreatic cancer, despite a well-publicized liver
transplant in 2009. The news stole headlines, and for good reason; he wasn’t
just the most popular CEO in the world, but also the best. Since rejoining Apple
in 1997, he helped steer the increasingly irrelevant fruit company from the
trash bin of history and turned it into the most valuable in the world.
Denting the Digital
It’s not difficult to see why,
really, especially as the face of corporate America has become stained with what
are essentially glorified bean counters as interchangeable as Legos, most
commanding companies and industries with little influence outside of giving
stockholders often misleading feelings of “corporate confidence”. With his mock
turtleneck and blue jeans, he became the antitheses to those championed the
bottom-line over excellence. It’s astonishing to see Apple’s greatest periods of
success and failure on a timeline, knowing how perfectly they match Jobs’ tenure
at the company. Could one man really be the sole driving force for innovation of
any company, let along much of the tech world?
Steve Jobs is among the last of a
generation that not only created the computer revolution, but became that
uniquely American symbol of it. His archetypical twin, Bill Gates, may have been
the world’s richest man and Father of Windows, but it was Jobs who provided the
spark that would forever change the digital landscape. It was his insistence
that computers and technology themselves could be beautiful, in both design and
function, that led to several revolutions in how we consume - and create – the
world around us. From typeface to music, to novels and games and everything
in-between, Jobs assumed the role of the tech world’s Prometheus, and did so
with a personality and style so convincingly and unabashedly charismatic that
some dubbed it the “reality distortion field”.
From meticulous hardware
aesthetics to the simplicity of software, Jobs’ thirty-plus years in the
business has impacted practically every facet of today’s digitally entertained
world, and then some. Many have pegged him a modern Thomas Edison, others Henry
Ford. But while Edison may have given us recorded music and movies and Ford
assembly line production, it was Jobs who married the two while practically
inventing entire industries and methods to get them into the hands of the most
important people in the – the consumer.
He’s among that small group who
seem to effortlessly blend engineering precision by way of a futurists’
clairvoyance, bringing the theoretical “what if” one step closer to
reality. Of course, behind all of these men were countless others, some more
critical than others, working tirelessly to help bring these often uncertain
visions into the world. As unfair as it might sound, we seldom give credit to
single ingredients, as succulent and delicious as they might be individually,
with the finished recipe. In a world of homogenous stone soups and kitchen
sinks, Jobs was always crafting tomorrow’s menu.
The original Macintosh computer,
with its graphical user interface, mouse control, and design software helped
invent desktop publishing, representing the most significant change to the
publishing world since Johannes Gutenberg's printing press. The platform’s run
on helping establish industry-standard software continued with Photoshop,
Illustrator, Quark, as well as countless scanners, printers, and other solutions
would radically change the relevancy of home computing and how content could
(and would) be created by just about anyone.
And this could help explain why
the world, and not just the so-called Apple fanboys, flocked to their TVs and
browsers to watch every new Apple keynote helmed by Jobs. We paid attention not
so much to see the next ‘magical’ product from Apple, but because it was during
these events that we were likely to catch our first glimpse of what the future
had in store. Under Jobs’ two reigns as Apple’s leader the company’s nearly
three decades of output became a veritable blueprint for the tech industry,
pioneering elements as broad as user interfaces and publishing to as minute as
single fonts and the color yellow.
But not everyone is sentimental over Jobs' retirement; some have been
downright hostile, issuing some of the most vile and vindictive spittle I've
ever seen, particularly over Jobs' life-expectancy and just how little an
innovator he really was. What’s interesting is that
a great deal of this manufactured animosity seems to emanate from the so-called
Android loyalist brigade, a group so slavishly devoted to promoting Google’s
mobile operating system they make Ron Paul’s acolytes seem laid-back by
comparison. No group is without their own set of detractors (diehard Apple fans
have practically turned their fanatic love into a cult), but the ones that I’m
referring to are those anonymous trolls who couldn’t tell real innovation and
influence from colored Monopoly money. Sadly, it’s a schadenfreude-laced mantra
that’s all too familiar, becoming the tech industry’s equivalent to creationist
theory; where do they think all these ideas come from, anyway?
It’s ironic that a group so shamelessly devoted to a company (or, at least,
their mobile operating system) built around the world’s greatest search engine
never seem to use the thing, as a quick Google search would probably be a pretty
sobering experience for them. On the eve of their company’s
public breakout in 2000 Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted Jobs to lead
their company as its first CEO, but eventually settled for then-Apple Board of
Directors’ member Eric Schmidt instead.
Following his resignation, Google
senior vice president of engineering, Vic Gundotra,
related how back in 2008
Jobs had called him early on a Sunday morning to let him know how the "second O
in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient" when viewed on the iPhone
screen. Jobs’ let him know that he’d already put his people at work on the issue
to fix it right away, citing its urgency.
Gundotra never forgot the
encounter, saying "in the end, when I think about leadership, passion and
attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a
Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I'll never forget. CEOs should care
about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday."
Jobs’ first post-Apple company, NeXT, never
became the financial powerhouse of his first was, but that didn't stop it from
being influential, particularly in the burgeoning world of the internet and when
it came to browsing the web. The company’s WebObjects project helped synergize
application use online, and let’s not forget that the world’s first web browser, WorldWideWeb (aka Nexus), was written using a NeXT computer.
Still not convinced? Check out
the history of WebKit the next time you’re busy browsing the web using that
Safari, Chrome, or just about any mobile browser in the world. And yes, that
includes the Android browser.
Without Steve Jobs, there
wouldn’t be Pixar Animation Studios, at least not as we know them
today. After picking up the company from
a disillusioned George Lucas back in 1986 and injecting his own capital into the
struggling hardware-driven outfit, he helped transform them from a relatively
rudderless collection of tech nerds into an animation powerhouse hell bent on
changing the world. Early work on traditional features like The Little Mermaid,
Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin led to the world’s first completely
computer-animated featured in 1995 with the original Toy Story and eventually
becoming the most successful movie company in the world.
Jobs’ skillful guidance of
Disney’s 2006 ‘buyout’ of the company to Disney was legendary, effectively
putting Pixar’s wizards in charge of the (mouse) house that Walt built and
himself the single largest holder of Disney stock in the world. Critically, this
led to the restoration of laid-off traditional (hand-drawn) animators, the end
of unnecessary direct-to-video sequels, and the end of the cancerous reign of
Michael Eisner from Disney.
Even more trivia fun: did you know that Pixar's Andrew Stanton (director of
Wall-E) personally asked Jonathan Ive, the man who designed the iPod, to help
assist with the design of Wall-E's beloved robot companion, EVE?
But it’s been Jobs’ triumphant
return to the company he founded in 1997 that would lead to his greatest run of
successes yet. Starting with the bubblegum-themed iMac, which not only anointed
the company’s ubiquitous i-naming scheme but helped pave the way for much of
Apple’s – and the industry’s - next decade of aesthetical design choices.
Perhaps his most prescient decision was to switch Apple’s focus from a
competitor to Microsoft and Windows, a battle Jobs admitted was over just prior
to rejoining the company, to a more consumer-oriented electronics company.
The Return: Enter the iAge
Of course, its difficult not to think of the iPod when talking about the
company's 'second coming', as it was the device that would signal what was to
come from Jobs and a newly reinvigorated Apple. The rare corporate AND culture
phenomenon, the iPod was the first iDevice to convince millions of music fans
that dangling white headphones from their ears was the best way to listen to and
experience music, and was instrumental in everything that was to follow. Where
the iPod changed the way we listened to music, the iPhone changed the way we
looked at our phones, opening up unparalleled possibilities into what many
believe will ultimately be the home PC's successor. The iFamily's newest member,
the iPad, once again defied tech industry analysts and other 'experts' to
basically create an entirely new tablet market, once again proving that there's
little reason to take anything they say seriously.
With the music world in a panic
following the collapse of the monstrously popular downloading world that was
Napster, few record companies would even think about committing their catalogs
to the online world without serious restrictions, on both user and how they used
them. Some might recall what seemed like an endless number of digital growing
pains, as music CDs were sold with toxic software (spyware by today’s
standards), incompatible formats, and even those brave enough to venture online
were overreaching, overcharging, or both. Enter Steve Jobs and what would
eventually become the most popular music service in the world, iTunes. Users
flocked to this safe, non-subscription based virtual store in droves and
downloading billions of digital tracks, demonstrating that people would indeed
still pay for music if the price was right.
The iTunes Store has been
credited with helping save the music industry from a potentially disastrous
transition away from physical media, and it was Jobs at the center who
orchestrated much of these negotiations personally. If you’re downloading music
(legally) today there’s a pretty good chance you’re doing it using iTunes.
Much has been made of Apple’s
game-changing iPhone/iPad family of phones and platforms, but much like the iPod
before them, they’re really a means to an end. As influential to the smartphone
(and tablet) interfaces as they’ve been, perhaps the most influential of all
Jobs’ creations has been the creation and maintenance of the iEcosystem (my
word). With iTunes as its skeleton this virtual circulatory system has let users
buy and keep track of their music, video, and now game collections using a
unified account. But even more critical has been how this ecosystem, once
established, was kind enough to invite everyone else to the party and sell their
indie digital creations alongside the world’s most established companies.
Apple’s sphere of influence, in
which their headline-stealing family of iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads, etc.,
gives just about anyone with enough ambition (and a Mac) access to hundreds of
millions of users, easily the largest platform of ready-made customers eager to
spend, spend, spend. Perhaps the biggest online gold rush since the original
internet boom of the late 90s, it’s already born fruit, making millionaires out
of amateurs overnight, and global superstars led by the likes of Angry Birds,
Cut the Rope, Doodle Jump, and countless others.
The original Macintosh, with its
revolutionary interface and emphasis on designing software, was built for
desktop publishing first and foremost. The very idea of eschewing the clunky,
text-driven command lines and opening up an entirely new world of tools for
creation for the general public cannot and should not be discounted. Apple, and
by extension Jobs’, skill at making computers ‘acceptable’ by the everyday user
is perhaps second only to Japanese game-maker Nintendo, a historical
contemporary who likewise emphasizes inclusion by way of the synergistic
relationship between hardware and software.
And this influence continues
today, stronger than ever, with the rise of Apple’s meme-making App Store and
the thousands of developers eager to fill its virtual shelves with many of
today’s most popular apps, games, and, yes, crap. This logical extension of
iTunes market-conquering music and video storefronts has once again changed how
users - and content providers – see the future of retail. And once again, it’s a
format that’s being or will be adopted by everyone else, including Google and
Microsoft. It’s likely that Apple’s recent hard-fought battle will ultimately
bring their competitors great dividends, and market leadership, much the same
way that the original Mac gave way to Windows. At least, that’s what a cynic
might think of an Apple without its captain at the helm.
And so Apple enters its next phase without Steve Jobs leading them through,
and the tech industry loses its most reliable divining rod of inspiration. At
times like these it’s hard not to think of Warren
Buffet’s entirely appropriate “three i’s” explanation of the universe:
first come the innovators, then come the imitators, then come the idiots. Which
side will you be on?