The Steve Jobs Story

You may have noticed that Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple’s official CEO last week. There’s been an awful lot written about the man and his contributions to the tech industry, much of it pretty good. I haven’t seen anything that tells the story of Steve Jobs as I understand it, so this is an attempt to set that right. Let’s all bear in mind the fact that Jobs is not dead, so obituaries are premature, but his health is seriously stressed so it’s sensible to make the very important role that Tim Cook plays at Apple official, as John Dvorak stressed in his “contrarian view.”

I’ve been an Apple user since I bought my first Mac in early 1984, within the 100 days from release period that Jobs said was critical to the machine’s success, but never exclusively or even primarily in the Apple camp. I got the Mac because it was the first machine with bit-mapped display and a overlapping windows GUI that I could afford, and it was my second or third home computer. Mac’s precursor, Lisa, was one of the models for the work I was doing on workstations in that period, and the Xerox stuff was another, so it was pretty thrilling to have one at home.

The first Mac was a deeply flawed machine in most ways, despite the cool GUI, the mouse, and the nice printers (one of which cost more than the Mac itself, as I recall.) By flawed, I mean it was targeted as a business machine that would compete with the IBM PC, but it had only 128K of RAM, no hard drive, no multitasking, and a tiny black and white display. These limitations were pretty much down to Jobs, although the RAM limit was apparently the brainchild of Jef Raskin, who believed that computers only needed one bank of the current standard in RAM at the time of release. Despite all of the constraints, I used the machine for a few years before upgrading to a Mac SE in the late ’80s with a PC clone along the way. I upgraded the RAM by desoldering the chips and installing sockets and a faster memory buffer. This was all very painful. The SE had pluggable RAM, an expansion port, and the ability to use third party laser printer that didn’t break the bank like Apple’s did (partially because the printer I got didn’t support Postscript.) The SE said that Apple could learn from its mistakes, but it was produced while Jobs was in exile at NeXT. The original Mac was a commercial failure, just as Lisa was, but the SE was a hit.

My view of Steve Jobs isn’t so much that he was a “visionary” as much as a perfectionist who was constantly pushing the limits of practicality. The ideas for such things as overlapping windows, smartphones, and tablet computers have been kicking around the computer world since the ’60s. Samsung cited a prop from the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as prior art in the dispute over the iPad patents, and Alan Kay dreamed up the Dynabook in 1968 as well. Between 1968 and the Mac, Xerox and others made progress at building something like the Dynabook, but only Apple sought out the mass market. Hence all the limitations: They were about keeping the cost down more than anything.

Jobs has always been the guy who wanted to bring the ideas that were floating around the computer science labs into the markeplace ahead of the other guys, and to do that he’s always targeted the top end of the market, the place where the early adopters are. His computers are BMW 3 series equivalents, not the Fords and Chevies that Microsoft creates, and not the insane million dollar supercars driven by soccer stars and drug dealers.

Jobs also made aesthetics a central part of the engineering process for personal electronics. That didn’t play so well in business machines – the spartan, beige box look appeals to Fortune 500 firms best of all – as it has with consumer devices. There’s a little product viewing room at Apple where the current product line is on display under gallery lighting that seems more art gallery than tech gear display. And why not? If you’re shelling out several hundred dollars for a machine you’re going to use for hours a day, why should it not be a thing of beauty to behold in every dimension from the box to the animation on the screen? It’s a personal pleasure device after all.

So I think Steve takes the vision stuff as given and focuses on execution. He’s often criticized for micro-managing his engineering team, and this was certainly valid during his first stint at Apple. During his time with NeXT and Pixar, he seemed to learn that it’s best to give the team a bit more rope, and that’s lead to much better products that were less limited if more expensive.

Apple’s success since the advent of the iPod comes about from a more holistic product concept, using the Internet in a practical way, and driving costs down. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, but it was the first to be backed up by an on-line store and healthy inventory of content at reasonable prices. It convinced Nashville that there was more to the Internet than piracy and went a long way toward correcting the damage that Napster and its ilk caused. The iPhone was also not the first smartphone, but it was the first to be backed by the iPod store, which was easily expanded into the App Store that’s the most compelling argument for the iPhone today.

The holistic thing points to another of Jobs’ talents, the Renaissance Man thing. While Apple was digging in and going toe-to-toe with Microsoft in the late ’80s, Jobs was immersed in the world of advanced workstations at NeXT and the world of Hollywood movie production at Pixar. He went where the ideas were, and it paid off for him, for Apple, and for the world. The World Wide Web was built on a NeXT workstation, and that fact is more important than the better known fact the first web programmer was a guy named Berners-Lee. If you ever saw the NeXTSTEP GUI, you realize that the Web is simply the NeXT desktop extended across its built-in networking: Something like NeXTSTEP for the rest of us. Jobs enabled CERN to buy a NeXT machine, and then simply had to sit back and wait for the inevitable Web.

So that’s the story. Jobs is a guy who finds good ideas, nurtures them, and then brings them to market in beautiful, practical, perfected form before anyone else does. He then allows the people at Apple who manage the supply chain to bring the cost of manufacture down to the point that the consumer gets them for a price they can afford, while Apple makes staggeringly good profits. Keeping the price on the high side allows lower-price competitors in the game, and sometimes they do well even if their products are less innovative. HP’s TouchPad failed to excite the imagination at the full retail price, but it caused a stampede at fire sale prices.

I’m not sure that Jobs holds out a great many lessons for the innovators of the future, as he’s a once-a-generation kind of guy in my book. He won the genetic lottery for brains and drive, and dedicated himself to his career in a way that few others have ever done. He had a worthy rival in Bill Gates during his formative years, and didn’t spend much time in college or seeking grants or loans. He seems to have been driven by a rare sense of urgency for a very long time, an indispensable part of the story.

I suspect that the Dynabook vision is essentially complete, so the next chapter in computer devices will take shape behind a new view of the future in any case. Apple is in as good a position as anyone to build the next generation of personal, networked software platforms, but it’s going to need a new Renaissance Man who can find the boundaries that need to be crossed and the connections that need to be made. I don’t know who that person is.

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