Steve Jobs died recently and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on his legacy. Certainly his story is an amazing one. He founded the first PC company, was kicked out a few years later, and then returned after that (when Apple was weeks away from bankruptcy) and managed to turn Apple into a juggernaut, all while he was battling cancer much of the time.
I believe that’s Steve Jobs has led the most dramatic turnaround of a company that I can remember. Only that, but Apple under Steve’s leadership was definitely a unique phenomenon. Most businesses today are run by committee and a kind of good enough mediocrity, Apple deftly stood out as something that was unique and special in many ways. Steve Jobs led Apple with his own particular personality, and it reflected both the good and bad of who he was.
On the positive side Apple, under Steve’s leadership, was able to produce an amazing aesthetic, that even today companies have been largely unable to successfully copy. The interesting thing about apples products is that the design looks very simple, and it is so clean and appealing. His designs are so simple and obvious that I wonder why everyone had not done this years ago. I believe most industrial designers these days spend most of their time following trends and mindlessly copying what other people are doing. The same goes for most company leadership. There are very few people out there who are able to successfully buck the trend of mediocrity, or even try to.
Not only did Apple products look pretty, but they have some amazing innovations. Features like being able to scroll by just swiping one’s finger up and down on the screen now seems so obvious, and yet no one thought of it for years before. Where as most design in the computer industry is created by techno-geeks, trendy marketers, and executives who spend most of time worrying about their own career, Steve Jobs was wonderful about being able to understand what the average consumer really wants, which is a product that looks good and functions simply intuitively with a minimum of fuss.
One of Steve Jobs insights was to create devices which especially appeal to women by being attractive and simple to use. Apples was able to create something that no one else has really been able to do in the PC business, which is to turn a commodity product with paper thin margins into a boutique product that people are willing to pay a hefty premium to own. Steve Jobs is also amazing and imagining new products and services that people like. He knew what people wanted even before they knew what they wanted.
The massive growth of Apple, the high profit margins and a very tight control on costs has turned Apple into an anonymously wealthy company. But, there is a dark side to all of Steve Jobs brilliance and success. He was often a difficult person to be with. He was also surprisingly stingy despite the fact that Apple could have afforded to be very generous.
Apple stopped giving to charity years ago, it employed contractors in China who had terrible working conditions, Apple never really cared much about the environment, and apples non modular design encourages people to throw away products early. Not only that, but Apple consistently charged for high prices for its products, its architecture was absolutely controlling and not non-open, and finally Steve Jobs had a tendency to be noncompliant with industry standards. Let’s make no mistake. Despite all the presumably enlightened and progressive air about Apple, fundamentally the company to Steve Jobs was about making as much money as possible, and often at any price. I’m not quite sure why Steve Jobs was so driven to increase profits at all costs, when he must’ve known that he was going to die fairly soon and couldn’t have taken it with him. I think sometimes his ambition took first place over his humanity.
Nonetheless, despite his evident flaws, Steve Jobs was a genius and an amazing individual. He has enriched the computer industry and their lives enormously, and taught all of us many valuable lessons. With his death I also have a feeling that one of the great American entrepreneurs is gone, and I’m not sure that another one is coming along to take his place. I see this as one more symbol of decline in America, and that our best days are behind us.