Ruminations on the legacy of Steve Jobs

PC, mobile, music, film, post-pc: Steve Jobs played an important part in disrupting them all.

Steve Jobs“It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” — Neil Young

That day has come.” Four simple words that signaled that Steve Jobs felt compelled to step down as CEO of Apple, the company he founded, then lost, then saw ridiculed and written off, only to lead its rebirth and rise to new heights.

It’s an incredible story of prevailing (read: dominating) over seemingly insurmountable odds. A story that has no peer in technology, or any other industry, for that matter.

That is why even though this moment was long anticipated, and while I know that Steve isn’t gone (and hopefully won’t be anytime soon), yesterday’s announcement nonetheless feels like a “Kennedy” or “Lennon” moment, where you’ll remember “where you were when …”

I say this having seen first-hand the genuine, profound sadness of multitudes of people, both online and on the street, most who (obviously) have never met the man.

Why is this? I think that we all recognize greatness, and appreciate the focus, care, creativity, and original vision that it takes to achieve it.

The realization that one man sits at the junction point of cataclysmic disruptions in personal computing (Apple II/Mac), music (iPod + iTunes), mobile computing (iPhone + iOS), movies (Pixar) and post-PC computing (iPad) is breath taking in its majesty. A legacy with no equal.

The intersection of technology and liberal arts

Apple Store in New York CityIn an era where entrepreneurialism is too often defined by incrementalism and pursuit of the exit strategy, Jobs’ Apple was always defined by true husbandry of a vision, and the long, often thankless, pursuit of excellence and customer delight that goes with it.

Ironically, though, Jobs’ greatest innovation may actually be as basic as “bringing humanity back into the center of the ring,” to borrow a phrase from Joe Strummer of the seminal rock band, The Clash.

Consider Jobs’ own words at the launch of the iPad back in January, 2010:

The reason we’ve been able to create products like this is because we’ve tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. We make things that are easy to use, fun to use — they really fit the users.

If this seems intuitive, and it should be, consider the modus operandi that preceded it. Before Apple, the hard truth was that the “inmates ran the asylum,” in that products were typically designed by engineers to satisfy their own needs, as opposed to those of the actual consumers of the products.

Moreover, products were designed and marketed according to their “speeds and feeds,” checklists of attributes over well-chiseled, highly-crafted outcomes. And it didn’t really matter if at each step along the value chain the consumer was disrespected and disregarded.

Ponder for a moment the predecessor to the Apple Store, CompUSA, and what that experience was like versus the new bar for customer service being set by Apple.

Or, think about the constraints on enjoying music and other media before the iPod, or the pathetic state of mobile phones before the iPhone.

Skeptics and haters alike can credibly say that Apple did not create these categories, but recognize that it took a visionary like Steve Jobs to build a new technology value chain around the consumer and make it actually work. To give birth to an entirely new platform play. To free the user from the hard boundaries of WIMP computing. To bring design and user interaction models into the modern age. And to magically collapse the once-impenetrable boundaries between computing, communications, media, Internet, and gaming.

Even today, the legacy MP3 device category is utterly dominated by Apple’s iPod, despite every would-be competitor knowing exactly what Apple’s strategy is in this domain.

To do this in segment after segment, launch after launch, takes true conviction and a bit of chutzpah. But then again, Apple, under Jobs, has never been a company that embraced or felt beholden to conventional wisdom (see “Apple’s segmentation strategy, and the folly of conventional wisdom“).

iPad as the signature moment in a brilliant career

iPad 2Time and again, investors, competitors and industry pundits have dismissed Apple, most recently when the company launched the iPad. Then, the conventional wisdom was that Apple “blew it” or that it was “just a big iPod Touch,” nothing landmark.

Truth be told, such dismissals are probably the barometer by which Steve Jobs knows that he’s played the winning hand.

I wrote in 2010, in anticipation of the iPad launch:

The best way to think about the iPad is as the device that inspired Steve Jobs to create the iPhone and the iPod Touch. It’s the vaunted 3.0 vision of a 1.0 deliverable that began its public life when the first generation of iPhone launched only two-and-a-half years ago … it is a product that is deeply personal to Steve Jobs, and I believe the final signature on an amazing career. I expect the product to deliver.

Well, it did deliver, and 30 million iPads later, the ascent of post-PC computing seems irrevocable as a result.

The moral of the story in considering the wonder and beauty of Steven P. Jobs, thus, is two-fold.

One is that most companies wouldn’t even have chanced cannibalizing a cash cow product like the iPod Touch (or the iPhone) to create a new product in an unproven category like tablet devices.

Not Apple, where sacred cows are ground up and served for lunch as standard operating procedure.

Two is that the mastery required to create a wholly new category of device that could be dismissed as “just a big iPod Touch” takes a very rare bird. Namely, one that pursues non-linear strategies requiring high leverage, deep integration and even higher orchestration.


Exactly the type of complexity that only Jobs and company could make look ridiculously, deceptively simple.

In his honor, may we all be willing to “Think Different” in the days, weeks and months ahead. That’s the best way to pay tribute to a legacy that will stand the test of time.

Apple Store and Steve Jobs photos from Apple Press Info.


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  • thoughtful reflections on Steve Jobs and his impact capped by the poignancy of an old Apple “think different” ad.

  • I really think that Jobs’s emphasis on being at the intersection of technology and liberal arts is indeed what has spurred Apple’s success. Whether you are a PC or a Mac, you have to admit that Apple dominates the categories of design and user-friendliness, probably largely due to Jobs’s leadership. Indeed a legendary career. What is next in Apple’s future? Continued growth or is this the beginning of the end?

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t it ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’
    The live on your feet line is from Midnight Oil’s power and the passion.

  • Steve Jobs’ resignation is not really a shock. Apple will be fortunate to have him on the board where his impact will certainly still be felt. Jobs is truly an inspiration.

    He raised the bar for excellence in IT and inspired many, many people, particularly the young. I think SJ is an amazing visionary with a great team and a keen sense what people want.

    His impact will be felt for a long time.

  • Marc Schwartz

    Great article…
    The man is one of those ounce in a generation or two or three in has case whose mind and passion shaped the way we live, entertain, evan think to an extent… this man has did much that you can evan skip over the creation of Itunes… and still be amazed… think of what the music industry would be with Napster at the helm… and with shitty mpls to muddle through mundane play list… Apple truly enriches our quality of life…

    Job’s impact will keep expanding… One can only hope that his children at apple keep his spirit alive…

  • ptsuk

    I don’t see why everyone is jumping on the “jobs is awesome” band wagon. I’m sure some of the people at Foxconn have differing views considering his record on worker rights.

  • @Live Chat, I remain quite bullish on Apple’s prospects going forward. Tim Cook eased into the role such that it was a non-event that he got tabbed, and there was zero question that he was the right choice. I believe that the company has a deep pipeline, a deep bench (in terms of their team), and lots of now-institutionalized “unfair advantages” that will cover them well for the next 3-5 years. Beyond that, who knows, but that’s as good as it gets, and is certainly light years ahead of any other company in tech.

    @Marc, so true, once in a generation type of leader (DIsney, Ford, Watson, Edison).

    @Ptsuk, fair perspective, but life doesn’t occur in a world of perfection or in a vacuum. Do we celebrate the creation of a transcontinental railroad, or lament the truth that it was the end of the American Indian? Do we wonder at the variety of things that we can buy from all over the world at prices we could never imagine, or focus on the fact that the pay and work conditions required to deliver it are akin to seeing sausage made? The truth is that it’s a paradox, and a false dichotomy to make it an all or none. It’s like the saying about american style democracy. It’s the worst system, until compared to all others.

  • No doubt Steve Jobs is a living legend in the world of gadgets. even if he’s no longer the CEO, he will still have a great impact on apple.

  • Dick Applebaum

    Very well reasoned and very well said!

    Thank you!

  • Susan M. Hinds

    Steve Jobs was a real inspirational leader for innovators and creators. I do not see one like Steve around today…great innovators able to inspire people to act– for any reason, even if it was motivated by spite at times– people moved mountains over Steve. We miss Steve and will be remembered as one of greatest innovators around– visionary w/details to boot! Steve was really very misunderstood- as most creators and innovators are. If Steve spent all time explaining it, great innovations would be non-existent. As a matter of fact, Steve gave more by giving self to an industry…leaving not-for-profits a new way of doing business not available before. Steve Jobs represents step six of Maslow’s hierarchy in search of self-enlightment transcended into a new way of being for many people…ascension is a word Steve Jobs brought to Apple and later himself in face of cancer…rose to the occasion in ways misunderstood by so many except innovators and creators– we get it!!!