Someone was on CNN last night comparing Steve Jobs to Edison, Ford and Disney in one, and for once it didn’t seem like the usual Apple fanboy hype. Jobs had Edison’s flair for innovation (and his ruthlessness in exploiting others’ ideas), Ford’s concern for process, and Disney’s sense of the culture.
So much of what the computer became was made possible or driven by Apple that it’s difficult to separate the two, just as it’s difficult to separate Apple’s story from Jobs’s. Often he wasn’t the first, but he took things that others had tried and failed with and made them succeed, by doing them better (Microsoft’s formula was a little different: it took things that others had done first and did them worse.)
His emphasis on the primacy of design, his fanatical attention to detail, his strategic vision—standing by the closed, proprietary, all-in-one model even after it had been “proved” wrong, long enough to see it triumphantly vindicated—would make him a business legend quite apart from any innovative wonders. That’s significant not only for Apple, but America—at a time when the Big Three and other long-time industrial titans were being eclipsed by foreign competition, often from low-wage economies, Jobs showed how advanced economies could still compete: by innovation, design, quality. And of course, marketing: there really was none better at delivering the sizzle with the steak.
And there’s the sociological impact: more than anyone else, Jobs made technology cool, and not just technology but business itself. I can’t remember young adults discussing business strategy, back when I was one of them, with the intensity that today’s young adults do about Apple’s, at least among the tech-minded. But these days that’s just about everybody. He not only made geeks hip, but made everyone into a geek, at least a bit—including, not insignificantly, women, who in the computer age’s early years would have not been caught dead using a computer, should anyone have thought to ask them.
Before Apple, the scientific and artistic worlds rarely intersected. After, a “techie” was as often as not a creative type. With a Mac, technology could be used not only to make things, but works of the imagination. Artists, musicians, photographers, film makers, even writers—one by one, they all entered the digital world.
I can’t think of any other business figure whose death would have prompted such widespread mourning, especially among people you would not ordinarily have thought would have any interest in business. One well-known tech-girl tweeted last night that she was hugging her MacBook Air while she watched the TV coverage. I don’t think it was just because he made great products. I think it’s the vision he offered of what business could be, what it could mean—that being in business could be a meaningful way to spend your life. Jobs’s story reminds us not only of the heroism of the entrepreneur, but of the nobility of craft: of what an honourable activity it is to make useful, beautiful things for each other, even if you make a fortune doing it. .