I believe that most folks were expecting an announcement of Steve’s death sometime soon. And yet, it is clear from most computing industry reactions to the announcement that there was something different and valuable about Steve, and that it is not clear who will succeed him in providing that unique “something.” But what is it?
I believe that it’s a much more subtle thing than most folks realize – because they don’t understand the mistakes he made along the way to becoming what he was just before he died, and how he managed to change himself just enough to begin to deliver user-friendly innovation after user-friendly innovation to meet the real needs of the consumer.
My Own Jobs History: The Early Apple Years
In his tenure as leader of Apple from its founding until his ouster, Steve Jobs displayed many of the traits that were later associated with his recent success. He was relentlessly focused on a “vision” for each release of an Apple product, and the vision was his vision, and everything in the product was highly integrated in the service of that vision. Thus, a product like the Apple II C had its own hardware, a different processor (i.e., not Intel), its own operating system (i.e., not DOS), and, above all, strict controls over how applications could be built on top of that operating system.
The results of that style were significant success and much more significant failure. As part of the overall PC revolution, Apple shared in the rapid growth of the consumer market. Steve Job’s vision, evidenced in “cool” products fitted for students and graphics departments, gave Apple a big share of those submarkets. But these submarkets never led to other markets – because application developers flocked to the more open free-for-all of Microsoft and its then competitors. At the computer software sections of stores in those days, you could find plenty of game, spreadsheet, and “do-it-yourself business” offerings on the PC side, and very few on the Apple side. And that, in turn, led to low market share for Apple in the consumer market, and in the business market as well.
There were other side-effects of Steve Jobs’ “vision” in those days. For a couple of years, I worked in a business workgroup environment using Macs, and I can tell you that the reality was not all it was cracked up to be. The print server software – a key part of our operation – frequently crashed, at bad times. The storage on Macs was prone to total failure, and there was a big risk of having all our work and records for a couple of years destroyed – as happened to me. I used PCs for years before and after; they were less user-friendly, and more prone to the “blue screen of death” in the abstract, but in the real world I could do a lot more and have a lot less risk of serious failure. And I suspect that the real reason for the difference was that things like print servers and storage just weren’t the focus of Steve’s “vision”.
At Apple, reportedly, Steve Jobs’ new-product-development style was a mixed bag. On the one hand, his insistence on user-interface quality and consistency clearly produced solutions that consumers intuitively liked, and his desire for innovation satisfied his programmers’ own urge to innovate. On the other hand, it seemed clear that his relentless upsets and negativity when the product wasn’t what he wanted were wearing after a while, gave little scope to the Apple programmers’ own creativity, and showed some blindness to what consumers really wanted. It is significant that Apple was able to spin off or foster few if any now-large software companies. FileMaker had and has excellent and useful database-design software, but is far smaller today than a Quicken.
Had Steve Jobs not been eased out at Apple back then, I am not at all convinced that he would have delivered the successful innovations of today. If I had been a board member tasked with deciding what to do, I would have weighed the short-term innovations like the Mac (which was a major step in graphical user interface [GUI] design, and had come about because Jobs stuck with the idea after the fizzle of the Lisa) against the long-term isolation to niche markets, and the waste of resources in never-win markets like Apple servers, and I might have agreed that it was time to try someone else.
A Decade in Exile
Initially, after he stepped down as head of Apple, Steve Jobs appeared to be positioning himself to make a return to Apple, but not necessarily to succeed any better once he did so. Specifically, Steve founded a company called NeXT, which aimed at producing the “next generation of operating system” using an object-oriented microkernel. Applied to a PC like the Apple Macintosh, this theoretically should have produced all sorts of benefits: better application performance, easier development of applications on top of the operating system (because object-oriented programming was a bit faster than the existing “structured” programming) and especially GUI-oriented ones, and faster turn-around on new versions of the operating system supporting all sorts of new capabilities. And, to a small extent, that was what happened when Steve returned from exile to Apple and made the NeXT operating system into Mac OS X Lion (the latest version).
However (again looking ahead), the effect was limited. Of course, at that point, Apple had nowhere to go but up, and in its traditional educational and graphics markets, the effect of faster delivery of Jobs’ “vision” products was to attract a whole new generation to Apple; but there was no clear indication that Jobs would be able to capture more than about 10% of the PC market, which was his high point during the early Apple years. In other words, the results show us that the effects of Steve Jobs’ NeXT “vision” were limited, and might have been short-term in and of themselves. The Steve Jobs of NeXT would probably have saved Apple; he probably would not have achieved more than a fraction of Apple’s present success.
It may seem odd to point to Pixar as the source of most of the computer-industry success that we have come to associate with Steve; but I believe that that is where he made a significant alteration in style that permitted that success. In very crude terms, I think he learned to ally with others. More specifically, he learned how to make deals with other companies that compounded his company’s revenues, how to allow companies (and later developers and consumers) to take his ideas and run with them, and how to accept ideas from others in areas he knew less about, and incorporate them into products in areas he did know very well.
The story of Pixar up to now is briefly told: five years of plowing money into a startup before things like Toy Story took off, an unequal alliance with Disney to allow survival that led to a major share in Disney once Toy Story took off, and the ability of Pixar to deliver innovation in computer-generated animation movie after movie, combined with solid success. But the key element in that success story was Jobs’ ability to strike and maintain a deal with Disney that infused not only Jobs’ “vision” but also Disney’s sense of commercial entertainment and third-party animators’ “vision” into Pixar, allowing it to repeat its initial successes without wandering off course.
The Real Triumph
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, remembering his past history, I was wary of becoming too enthusiastic. And, indeed, until the arrival of the iPhone, it wasn’t completely clear that things had changed. But there were two things about the iPhone that signaled a significantly different Jobs. First, the touch screen was done right. Not only was it innovative (somewhat), and user-friendly in its simplicity, but it was entertaining. It seemed to me that Steve had taken what he had learned at Pixar, and applied it to giving a broad set of consumers a new “cool” tool.
The second key difference was that iPhone did development right. Yes, there was reluctance and there were limits initially on iPhone app creation, but the old Steve Jobs might very well have kept tight control on app development forever. The new Steve Jobs allowed outside developers to get a little compensation for each app, and, as they say, the rest is history – a history that shows that the result is not short-term but long-term evolutionary innovation of iPhone and the smart phone.
Things like iPad and iCloud are very much a repeat of the same story. The tablet has a long history of failure, and indeed the old Apple took full part in the belief that what mattered was making it easy for people to scribble on a computer screen. But iPad – and its competitors – were and are mainly about touch-screen commands and downloading books and movies at lower costs for use on the go. That’s a smart phone and media industry insight as much as a computer industry one. And, of course, Steve Jobs’ “vision” embodied in the user interface persuaded most consumers to accept the innovation and take the next big step forward. While iCloud will probably wind up making less of a smash, its development and introduction appear like iPhone and iPad in miniature.
And so, I salute the Steve Jobs of the last few years as having indeed delivered major innovation that is unique and valuable. But I assert that the real question should be, not who if anyone in future will succeed him in his “vision”-type style, but who will be able to deliver that kind of results, whatever their style?
You see, there are two types of failure inherent in Steve’s story. One is the failure of the “visionary” who may be right about the general direction of innovation, but undercuts that innovation by “I only see my way” implementation of the vision. The other, which we are much more apt to perceive, is the incessant failure of others in the computer industry to pay the price initially to implement the vision, or even to have the innovative chops at all.
That the later Steve Jobs avoided both failures is, I think, an indication that at any time he would be a pretty rare bird. But I would argue that slowly, reluctantly, corporations of all stripes are coming to realize that innovation that both connects to the customer constantly and taps into company or third-party creativity is a Good Thing. So I am hoping that we will see more successors to Steve Jobs, not in his style, but in his result of successful innovation – as long as these same companies ensure that one creative voice integrates all these strands of innovation together, version after version, product after product.
Therefore, Steve Jobs, rest in peace. I always liked the Vachel Lindsay poem that went “Sleep softly, Eagle Forgotten, under the stone … To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name.” In this case, I can hope that Steve, warts and all, will live in innovators of the future. And that will be far more important to the computer industry and us than his legacy, however great, to Apple.