The Man Who Sold the Future

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?”