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.


tags: , , , , ,