Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder who died Oct. 5 at age 56, changed the world by giving the people what they want.
Jobs’ genius lay in realizing that people do not want incremental improvements on existing products, or an arms race on specifications that only engineers care about. People do not care how many bits or bytes it has.
What the people want are awesome devices that blow their minds by enabling them to do things they didn’t even know they wanted to do, and they want products so intuitive that Grandma can use them on the first try. What the people want is vision. And Jobs, unlike any other figure in contemporary American business, delivered it.
The short list of what Jobs brought to the masses: the Apple personal computer, the mouse and graphical user interface, Pixar movies, the iPod, iPhone and now the iPad. He’d rightly be called a technology genius for any one of them.
Jobs didn’t invent any of those things. He never hid that he stole good ideas wherever he could find them, like the graphical user interface and mouse he saw at Xerox Corp. In this regard, the comparisons are apt between Jobs and Thomas Edison, who is remembered for the light bulb though he did not invent it.
Jobs was not, by almost any account, a likeable guy. He was obstinate in his goals, tough on his employees and borderline maniacal about micromanaging big products. And for all his mercurial quirks, he was a ruthlessly effective businessman.
We would do well to remember the Jobs who, fresh off the success of the iPod, came to a music industry that had been brought to its knees by illegal piracy and offered a way out — for a steep price (one third of the revenue from songs sold on iTunes, to be precise). This is the Jobs who shortly before his death began to offer the same deal to the beleaguered publishing industry with the iPad. This is the Jobs whose beautiful, mind-blowing devices are actually tracking your every twitch and desire in order to make you marketable, and whose devices actually exist as a closed garden so that Jobs can charge application developers a hefty fee for access to you. This is the Jobs who gets you to pay too much for the device and then gets you to keep spending money in his app stores.
This is the Jobs who makes one wonder whether his technology exists to serve us, or whether we exist to serve his technology. Apple did not become the world’s most valuable technology firm by luck or accident. Jobs willed it so.
That said, all my personal gadgets and computers are Apple. They cost too much and I could do without the over-hyped product announcements, but I bought them anyway because they represented something rare in this age — vision. They weren’t designed by committee, and you could tell. Jobs’ death saddened me because now, Apple is just another technology company. It’s possible that the combination of Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook and lead designer Jonathan Ives will rival Jobs, but I doubt it.
There is no foundation with Jobs’ name on it like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation named for the Microsoft co-founder. Jobs made no public display of philanthropy with his $8 billion fortune. But perhaps he left us with something more valuable. He proved that even the uppermost echelons of American business, where sensible suits and status-quo caution often rule, the relentless pursuit of personal vision still matters.