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Steve Jobs: An Unexpected Appreciation

Having spent much of my life dealing with the Steve Jobs phenomenon, I can say that it was only in the last few years that he became the great figure he was always destined to be.

by
Michael S. Malone

Bio

October 6, 2011 - 9:02 am
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And at the center of it all was Steve Jobs. Contrary to myth, he was never an engineering genius like, say, Steve Wozniak. But where his real talent lay — as a technology impresario — was of far greater importance, and infinitely rarer. As in the early days of Apple, Jobs by the turn of the new century was exhibiting almost perfect vision not just for what the marketplace wanted in new consumer products, but what it would want once it saw them.

Here in Silicon Valley, we tend to throw around terms like “visionary” with abandon. But more than anyone in the Valley’s history, Steve Jobs deserved the title. And while others have exhibited this trait briefly — and are celebrated for it — Jobs not only displayed this talent for generations of new technologies, but managed to imbue his entire company with it. In many respects, today’s Apple Computer is Steve Jobs’ greatest invention — a giant company that still manages to reward risk-taking and radical innovation. There has never been another company quite like it — and it all rested on Jobs’ extraordinary willingness, almost unique among Fortune 500 CEOs, to always reward risk-taking even when it failed, and punish “safe” thinking.

This kind of corporate culture would be admirable at any time, but in the first decade of the 21st century, when the battered tech industry and crippled venture capital profession almost always took the safest and most conforming path, Steve Jobs’ Apple often seemed like the only interesting company in consumer electronics; the one ray of light in a dreary economy. Everybody else just seemed to be following in Apple’s wake, waiting for Jobs & Co. to introduce the latest wonder product … and then race to create second-rate imitations. It was during this period, like many others in the Valley, I found myself rooting for Jobs and Apple as the last best hope of electronics.

Something else happened as well: Steve got sick. Steve Jobs, pancreatic cancer survivor, made his first public appearance with his celebrated Stanford graduation speech. This was a new Steve. If some of his bad habits remained, they were also tempered by the new-found wisdom of someone who has just faced his own mortality. In an odd way, the cancer seemed to purify Jobs, removing the small things in life at which he often showed his worst, and focusing him on the big things, where he was always in his glory.

Though he was idolized long before that, it was only in the last few years that Steve Jobs reached his full potential and became the great figure he was always destined to be. Seemingly knowing that his time was short, and stripped of the ego that had been his biggest burden, Steve at last became a great CEO, just as he had always been one of the greatest of all entrepreneurs. To that unmatched run of landmark products, he now accomplished one more thing never achieved by his famous Valley predecessors — he took Apple from the garage to become the most valuable company in the world. It was the perfect finish to one of the most amazing lives of his generation — and even those of us who knew-him-when found ourselves cheering.

What will be his legacy? It is far too early to tell. There are the great products, but they will fade, sooner rather than later in the fast-paced world of tech.  Apple? It will be a healthy company for a long time, but there is no one who can take Steve’s place and put the stamp of his personality on the firm. If Hewlett and Packard, having created the most celebrated of all corporate cultures, couldn’t keep it going after they left, does anyone think that Apple will remain a risk-taking innovator? No, its likely fate will be a genteel middle age with strong profits and low incentives to take new risks.

As for Jobs himself, there is little that can be learned from his example. He was such a complex bundle of brains and quirks, charisma and cruelty, pettiness and prophecy that he is likely sui generis. You can’t clone him, copy him, or teach him, no matter how valuable an economy full of Steve Jobs might be.

So in the end the only real legacy of Steve Jobs, beyond a few products on display in museums, will probably be the life of the man himself . Generations of budding entrepreneurs will now know that it really is possible to go all of the way:  to start from nothing, build the most important enterprise on the planet, change the world … and through it all, as Steve Jobs told the Stanford graduates, love every step of the journey.

Don’t miss video: “Wozniak talks about his friend Steve

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Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years.
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