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The Man Who Sold the Future

Steve Jobs not only understood the times he lived in, he anticipated what would come next.

by
Will Collier

Bio

October 7, 2011 - 12:00 am

Universities are always awash with bright (and, let’s be honest, not-so-bright) kids who claim they want to “change the world.”  Vanishingly few of them have the abilities to do anything of the sort, and still fewer have the innate drive and relentless, adamantine will to see their personal visions through to reality. Almost none actually succeed at changing even their own immediate surroundings, much less the world.

Steve Jobs was one of the infinitesimally tiny group to see that youthful ideal through. In the space of 35 years, Jobs, the on-and-off-and-on-again founder and leader of Apple, changed the way the world works, plays, communicates, listens to music, and watches movies — to say nothing of changing movies themselves, in his “spare time” job as CEO of Pixar.

Grasping the totality of Jobs’ life and accomplishments defies any short account. When Jobs started working in the tech field, as a teenaged summer hire at Hewlett-Packard (he got the job by cold-calling William Hewett, scrounging for hobby-project parts), personal computers weren’t even a blip on the horizon and the internet existed only as a crude, text-based network between defense bases and universities. Telephones were black, rotary, and run by a monolithic monopoly. Video games didn’t exist (Jobs was hired by the nascent Atari a few years later; he proceeded to design the seminal game “Breakout”), music came from vinyl records, and animation was something done laboriously by hand on endless sheets of plastic.

Not long after, Jobs founded Apple, and became the driving force in creating the personal computer, helping build out the massive industries supporting that technology and also fundamentally changing virtually every other industry on the planet. That alone would constitute one of the more impressive legacies in human history, but Jobs didn’t stop there, even after being ousted from Apple in a 1985 corporate coup.

Many pixels and much ink will — justifiably — be spilled this week celebrating Jobs’ legendary sense of style and intense focus on perfecting the user experience, but I suspect another vital key to Jobs’ success will be overlooked, namely his genius for locating and recruiting brilliant people. For all his fame as a tech guru, Jobs was far from an accomplished engineer and had little formal technical training. His real brilliance lay more in indentifying people with extraordinary gifts — Steve Wozniak, Jef Raskin, Jonathan Ive, John Lasseter, to name just a few from a vast list of geniuses —  and then pushing, cajoling, haranguing them until the end product was closer to a meticulously-perfected work of art than just another throw-away lump of consumer plastic.

Jobs was no saint. Tales of his short temper and blistering rants directed at subordinates were legendary. When I spent a few months as an Apple phone support drone after finishing college, the old-timers there who’d known Jobs in his first run as “Employee 0” shuddered at the mention of his name — but that was 1993, when Apple’s stock price was around $15, and practically nobody expected the company to survive long enough to see the 21st century.

Apple without Jobs was just another clueless corporation. The revolving door of CEOs tried everything the management books recommended, turning the scruffy start-up into something much closer to the buttoned-town, hierarchical IBM, which for decades was considered the ideal computer company. Sales dropped even as the product line ballooned, with dozens of computers you couldn’t tell apart even if you worked there, and rare successful new products died stillborn because the company couldn’t manufacture enough of them in time to meet demand.

With Jobs, who was recalled in 1996 as the company faced extinction, Apple was something else entirely. Jobs’ second life at Apple was built on the lessons learned during his long exile. His first acts were to strip away the mass of committee-approved flawed products and failed initiatives that had collected around Apple like so many barnacles: Out went the bizarrely-differentiated computer lines, replaced by a simple lineup of iMacs and iBooks for consumers and PowerMacs and PowerBooks for “pros.” Out went the once revolutionary but now obsolete MacOS, in came the Jobs-fostered OS X. Out went the loved-by-techies Mac clones, out went the superfluous printer division, out went the collected detritus of a decade and a half of IBM- and Microsoft-imitating management.

In came Tim Cook, who tore apart and then rebuilt Apple’s manufacturing infrastructure, creating a mass-production colossus out of a company that had long been infamous for its inability to ship popular products in quantity. In came Ive, designing (under Jobs’ exacting supervision) products so elegant that people wanted to buy them before they were even turned on. In less than two years, the nearly-dead Macintosh was saved and Apple’s stock price was up by 400%. For most executives, those accomplishments alone would have constituted a successful career.

But of course, Jobs was far from finished. A music lover, he recognized early on that the digital revolution would change that business in ways that the stolid record companies hadn’t yet grasped. Apple’s first move into that business came with iTunes, at first a simple music player, and the “Rip, Mix, Burn” campaign. A chance meeting with Toshiba vendors seeking customers for a tiny hard drive led to the first iPod, which in turn became the signature consumer product of the last decade. When Napster and its offspring laid low the old record companies, Jobs was there with both the foresight and the ability to change the music business from  manufacturers of plastic discs to producers of digital songs — and all of them are now dependent on the scraggly little computer company from Cupertino.

Remember: anybody could have done all of those things, and inevitably, somebody would have — they just wouldn’t have done them as well as Steve Jobs.  The iPod was not the first MP3 player, but it was the first one that anyone could immediately understand within seconds of picking it up for the first time.  iTunes wasn’t the first music-management program, but it was the one that offered the most elegant path from CD — and later, more importantly, online store — to music player (and phone, and tablet, and…).

The list goes on and on: Pixar became the first computer animation movie studio basically by default, but Pixar’s movies were so amazingly good, they basically ran every traditional animation shop out of business, and forced the other studios to develop their own (far inferior) CGI shops just to compete. A portable telephone that doubled as an internet device was a long-predicted product in the tech world, but nobody came close to getting it right until Jobs introduced the iPhone in a mesmerizing 2007 presentation.

Think about that for a second: that speech was only four years ago.  In the time it (notionally) takes for a high-school graduate to become a college graduate, the entire world changed the way it communicates, thanks to Jobs and his singular drive for elegant, eminently useful products. Can you really remember, now, what it was like when you didn’t have that magical box of wonders in your pocket?

Jobs’ last project (at least the last one we on the outside know about), the iPad, is the apotheosis of his life-long vision of an exquisitely simple sealed box.  He always hated the messy mass of wires and switches and geegaws protruding out of a computer; the iPad was the distilled result of three decades of brutal, relentless simplification: just a sheet of glass and a single button, but it brings you the world.

Jobs, like any mortal, had his failings and failures. Arguably the worst was recruiting Pepsi executive John Sculley as Apple’s CEO in 1983. Sculley proceeded to drive Jobs out of the company and Apple straight into mindless corporate blandness, but Jobs’ original pitch to Sculley, the pitch he made to so many struggling engineers and to everyone, everywhere who would settle for “good enough” still rings out, even from the grave:

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or come with me and change the world?”

Will Collier is an aerospace engineer and writer living in metro Atlanta. Will has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including National Review Online, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Birmingham News, and Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine.
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