Steve Jobs: The Long Goodbye
As Steve Jobs finally stands down from Apple, Saul Wordsworth considers his philosophy and his legacy
In August 2008 Bloomberg mistakenly published an obituary of Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs. Jobs responded by quoting Mark Twain’s oft-cited refrain: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. Fast forward to August of this year and in a letter addressed to the Apple Board of Directors and the Apple Community Jobs states, “I have always said that if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.”
Lost in the understandable sadness and speculation about the future of the company is the concept of an Apple “community”. How many other organisations could be said to have created a band of devotees on such a scale? There are hundreds of millions of Apple aficionados throughout the world, all borne of Jobs’ creativity, passion, good taste, force of personality and vision. The demonstration of a new Apple product, always fronted by its enthusiastic CEO in trademark black turtleneck, blue jeans and scruffy trainers, has increasingly held the aura of a magic show, pushing the boundaries of what a human can conceive, making Jobs himself seem like a cross between a conjuror and a rock star.
“There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love,” said Jobs. “‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’ And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will.”
Charismatic, tyrannical, brilliant beyond compare, it could be argued that Jobs has influenced our culture more than any other human being in the past 30 years. It is not merely a technological achievement. In the same way that the development of the motorcar altered the way human beings lived, so this college dropout from Silicon Valley turned computing into a the most personal, direct and pleasurable experience it could be, making computers as easy to use as the telephones and turning telephones into high-functioning computers.
“Steve Jobs has always understood that as human beings our first relationship with anything is an emotional one,” says Stephen Fry, personal friend and renowned technophile. “Architects recognise this. Jobs understood that computers are like buildings; people visit them every day. People log on and spend their lives inside an operating system and he thought they should be smooth and beautiful in the same way a building can be charming and delightful and a place you want to revisit. He saw that a device that sits in your hand and connects you to people isn’t just a sum of its functions, it’s something that should make you smile, that you should cradle, love, have an emotional relationship with. And if people think that’s pretentious then the success of Apple is proof of how wrong they are.”
The unusual slant that Jobs brought to the personal computing market can be traced back to his early years. Adopted at birth, the young Jobs was indeed a college dropout albeit one who hung around for a further 18 months and ‘dropped in’ on what he regarded as the ‘interesting’ courses. This led him to take classes in calligraphy, ‘knowing nothing would come of them’, only for this to inspire what he calls, the beautiful calligraphy of the first personal computer by Apple – and since Windows just copied the Mac it’s likely no personal computer would be like this were it not for those classes’. During this period he slept on floors, cashed in empty coke bottles, experimented with LSD, travelled to India and converted to Buddhism.
In 1976 Jobs’ formation of Apple with local computer whizz Steve Wozniak led to instant success. Shares in the company were so sought after that by the time it floated four years later it became the biggest stock market launch since Ford in 1956. Yet his perfectionism combined with a lack of business awareness led to boardroom clashes and he was ousted from his own company in 1985.
Not lingering long to lick his wounds Jobs founded Pixar – later to become synonymous with brilliant animation – along with NeXT, a quality computer workstation firm. 11 years later Apple bought NeXT, acquiring not only the OS X software that has underpinned every product Apple has made since, but Jobs himself. Jobs set about cancelling projects he deemed wasteful before hauling Apple back to and beyond their glory days with first the iMac then a series of increasingly awe-inspiring innovations such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad, thereby ring-fencing for Apple the crucial modern markets of computing, online music and mobile devices.
“The Macintosh turned out so well,” Jobs once said, “because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists.” Whether this is true or not, the value of an Apple product to the consumer lies in the coming together of science and art. Therein lies the heart of Jobs’ vision.
“Steve Jobs has an artists’ eye as well as a definition of what great engineering is,” said chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, recently. Apple’s combination of cutting-edge electronics, intuitive operation and aesthetic beauty has created unparalleled brand loyalty, together with a mythical status bestowed upon its founder. From the eye-catching translucent casing of the iMac to the silver sliver of the MacBook Air, all Apple products have a visual ‘wow’ factor. Meanwhile the personal relationship Jobs wished to embody between man and machine is personified in everything from his early adoption of the mouse to the use of ‘pinch’ on the iPhone and iPad, a system that takes personal involvement to new heights. All of these elements allied to a staggering attention to detail and hands-on approach made Jobs a formidable boss, and one with grand ambitions. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water,” he said to John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi, when trying to persuade him to join Apple, “or do you want to change the world?”
Steve Jobs remains synonymous with Apple, in particular its recent transformation into the undisputed market leader. The almost childlike excitement he showed for his own products was infectious and his anticorporate persona proved popular he was recently voted the most admired entrepreneur amongst teenagers worldwide. Whilst company shares fell by 4.1% upon his departure (officially to become chairman of the firm), they have since stabilised. Jobs leaves Apple in astonishingly robust shape with a war chest of $48m, enough to buy Tesco and BT, or go some way towards fixing the British economy.
How long the company can remain an extension of his coruscating personality remains to be seen. As Dan Crow, former Senior Apple Engineer and long-standing colleague of Jobs put it, Even when Steve isn’t personally involved in a product, his philosophy is so well understood in the company that it pervades everything Apple does. It’s hard to see how that influence can remain at the level it is now because Steve is such a personality, and his influence is a very powerful tool in the company that is used to maintain standards. What we do know is that he leaves behind Jony Ive, the British designer with whom he devised Apple’s most eye-catching products, along with Tim Cook, the former Chief Operating Officer who has been embedded at Apple for over a decade and now takes over as CEO.
The world of computing and beyond wish him good health but it seems this is the one area of his life where he has lacked the Midas touch. Most admit he is unlikely to make a return, though few doubt he will continue to exert as much influence as he can, while he can.
Like most geniuses Jobs could be difficult, sometimes unpleasant, occasionally impossible. Nor does Apple possess an unimpeachable record, with conditions at some of its factories in China regularly called into question and a scaling back of its philanthropic work under Jobs. But his legacy will be an overwhelming powerful one, that of a man with a unique ability to anticipate trends who helped create a portfolio of products that changed the world.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me to help me make the big choices in life,” said Jobs at his Stanford commencement speech in 2005. “Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
This article was written on a MacBook Pro.