The Meaning of Steve
So, as you all probably know, Steve Jobs quit. He resigned as CEO of Apple, a company he started, then rejoined, and in 14 years drove from near-bankruptcy to become the largest public firm in the world with more cash than the US government and the world’s most valuable brand.
Consider, for a moment, the meaning of Steve.
Jobs haven’t really invented stuff. He sees the potential in new ideas and then, at the right time, he takes that idea to its full potential. Someone recently said: “Three apples have changed the world. The one that Eve ate, the one that dropped on Newtons head and the one that Steve built.” But Jobs haven’t just changed the world once. By my count, Steve Jobs has changed the world four times. Four.
The first Macintosh had a mouse, windows, icons, graphical UI and made even children want to use it just for fun (they particularly enjoyed “MacPaint”). Sure, there were Altairs before that, but there were no “personal” computers – such a thing was unimaginable. After that, they knew anyone could own a computer. It changed everything.
After Jobs was kicked out after at boardroom coup in 1985, it went downhill with Apple. When he was again made interim CEO in 1997, Apple soon made the successful iMac, followed by the iBook. They were great but didn’t really change the world.
When Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, the interface on the hardware was a revelation. Still, the iPod was just another music player until Jobs made iTunes happen. iTunes, with the help of the iPod, changed everything. The music industry turned inside out. Sure, there had been MP3 devices from the likes of Creative, but Steve Jobs changed the world by making us realise what a cool device connected to a cool service could do. He changed the world again.
Thirdly, the iPhone changed the world. It changed the dynamics of the phone industry – it was subsidised, but Apple controlled the interface, not the carriers. It became your real-time, all-the-time portal to the world, in your pocket. The apps, the multi-touch interface – another revelation. Though it wasn’t the first smartphone, it changed the world yet again.
The iPad was the fourth change. It’s disrupting the PC industry with a new mode of interaction.
(If you want to stretch it, Pixar changed a whole industry, too. Call it four and a half times.)
Nobody else comes close.
Bill Gates changed the world twice – once with DOS, and once with Windows.
Sergei Brin and Larry Page changed it once, with Google.
David Sarnoff once, with color television.
Tim Berners-Lee and then Marc Andreessen once, with the Web and the browser.
(There are more, of course, like Bell, Franklin, Fleming, Gutenberg etc., but those were the first I could think of from modern times.)
I can’t think of any entrepreneur that has changed the whole world four times. Not since Edison, at least.
(Speaking of, Glassdoor, an online jobs and careers community, carries reviews of Apple from almost a thousand of its employees. Most are glowing about the firm and in particular about Jobs’s impact on it. One post even calls Apple’s former boss “the Thomas Edison of this century”.)
You can admit that Steve is out of all of our leagues. But what is the meaning of Steve? What can we learn?
He has been phenomenal with strategy, they’re vast and long-term. He has excelled at building and managing the supply chain and choosing awesome designers and designs. He knows audacity, he persuades the masses with showmanship and really makes people believe.
But perhaps first and foremost, we can learn from his timing. Jobs was often not the first. But he saw what technologies were on the verge of being possible – and what technologies consumers were ready to accept. There could have been no iPhone without the habits created by iPods and Blackberry, no Mac without Apple and IBM PCs embraced by those who came before. When he knows its time, he takes that idea to its full potential.
It has been widely rumoured that engineers at Apple were urging its boss to create a tablet computer in the previous decade. But Jobs turned a deaf ear and instead insisted that the company focus on producing a smartphone. The iPhone transformed the market and is still minting money. The iPad was later released exactly at the right time.
In a creative cauldron like Apple, ideas are rarely in short supply. But the skill of choosing the right ones to focus on at the right time is rare. Steve Jobs has it. We should cross our fingers that Tim Cook, the new CEO, does too.
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