Steve Jobs: This American life

WELLS: It wasn’t virtue Jobs was trying to spread, it was competence and ingenuity


The question before the house now, or one of them, is whether Steve Jobs was an innovator. It’s easy to come up with perfectly fair definitions of the term that leave him offside. The mouse and the graphic user interface came from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Music downloading was huge before he ever did it, or at least it seemed huge before he changed the scale on which the word is understood. I remember taking my first iPod to a computer store where one of the geeks showed me how to pry the back off. The magic came off with it. Just a thin battery, a thin hard drive, and a circuit board. Anybody could do it. Many already had.

So if innovation means being the very first, count Jobs out. There’s actually a parallel argument in jazz music, if you can believe it, where people have spent 30 years debating whether Miles Davis innovated anything. The obvious answer is that, if innovating means being very first, he didn’t. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie showed him how to play bebop. Lester Young was stripping ornament from his solo lines when Miles was in short pants. And so on. But Miles heard new currents, found ways to make them consistent with his own aesthetic, and presented them in ways a general audience could grasp and then love. And then he did it again and again. If an innovator is a conduit between an idea and all its possible audiences, then both of these guys were at the heart of that game.

Very early on, Apple got in the habit of producing products that weren’t particularly impressive in their technical specs but inspired loyalty with an appeal to intangibles. The Apple II+ wasn’t particularly a smarter or faster beast than the TRS-80 or the Commodore Pet or the other dinosaurs of the silicon swamps at the dawn of the 1980s. But it looked (a tad) more elegant, and its top was connected with nothing more than velcro strips so you could get at the crazy number of expansion slots — eight, I think — that made even that paleolithic machine open to easy, radical customization.

Those were key elements of the Jobs style: aesthetic grace and heaps of flexibility. A third element was apparent soon after: a deep urge to simplify, often beyond reason. The first Macintosh keyboard had no numerical keypad, even though keypads are actually pretty useful. The first iPod had fewer controls than it should have had. Jobs’s mouse had one button when the rest of the industry was using two or even three. Those extra mouse buttons were really handy. Almost always Jobs would un-simplify his products as he went along. But that urge to strip to the bone matched the intuition of millions of consumers, who were sure that if a machine is as smart as advertised, it should not need a human to do all the work.

Jobs screwed up a lot. He made dud products (Apple I, Lisa) and dud applications (Hypercard, [Update: that one happened while he was off the Apple payroll — pw] Mobile Me). He managed to get himself fired by the company he founded; there’s a movie, a Russian novel, in the way he schemed his way back in. If he hadn’t he’d be a footnote. His greatest triumphs came near the end of his life: the iPhone in 2007, the iPad in 2010 — together worth three-quarters of the whole company’s sales last quarter — the very late-breaking market-share growth of Apple laptops and desktops. In the last few months of Jobs’s life, his company became the biggest in the world. There’s been no comeback like it.

One more lesson from Miles Davis: there is no need to confuse effectiveness with virtue when taking the measure of a man. Jobs seems to have been a fine fellow, but it wasn’t virtue he was trying to spread, it was competence and ingenuity. Virtue was one of the things his customers could do with his stuff, if they liked. It came from them, not from him. Jobs didn’t lead so much as listen, refine, extend, echo, and repeat. He amplified human potential. Not a bad life’s work.

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Steve Jobs: This American life

  1. Dude, HyperCard was awesome.

    • The basic concept of HyperCard is linking.
      An app that was way ahead of it’s time.

  2. Nice piece. Jobs had nothing to do with the Newton, though: he killed it upon returning to Apple. Ironically, he said at the time that “Apple makes computers and computers have keyboards.”

  3. ‘Jobs is listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 338 US patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies from actual computer and portable devices to user interfaces (including touch-based), speakers, keyboards, power adapters, staircases, clasps, sleeves, lanyards and packages.’


    He’s already dead, he doesn’t need a stake.

  4. Maybe, if being first is a required part of the definition, he wasn’t an innovator. However, speaking as a non-Apple user, he added “snazzy” to an industry that specialized in boring. In itself, I think that a fair legacy.

  5. Not that anybody should care, but the Commodore PET needs to be in all caps, as it was an acronym for Personal Electronic Transactor – or so Commodore said.

  6. My missus’ theory – Jobs unique combination of male and female behaviours, attributes. Jobs both ruthless business man and had uncommon focus on design aesthetics. Paradox of humans is that we always add bells and whistles to our products to make them better but we actually prefer simplicity. And most humans don’t like clutter either. 

    I don’t know how accurate stories were but I think sometime in July Apple reportedly had more ready cash than US Fed government. I thought that would be awesome way for Jobs to die – his company have more money than State.

    Virginia Postrel ~ Where Is Next Steve Jobs?

    Everybody, it seems, wants to be like Apple Inc. Google buying Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., many observers say, so it can integrate hardware and software to be like Apple (and to enlarge its patent pool).

    Last week, Joel Ewanick, the global chief marketing officer at General Motors, declared that “it’s time to clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like Apple.” Translation: We want to be like Apple ….

    To many people, Apple’s success seems like magic. Others attribute it to cool products, good marketing, and Steve Jobs’s charisma or presentation skills. Critics credit the Apple co- founder’s ability to project a “reality distortion field.”

    In his new book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters,” Richard P. Rumelt, a strategy professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, offers another explanation: the ruthless execution of good strategy … 

    Apple’s recent success has made people forget not only how close the company came to failing but also what Jobs did to turn it around when he returned as chief executive in 1997. He diagnosed Apple’s problem: It was hemorrhaging cash and its product lineup was too diverse, confusing and expensive.

    In response, Rumelt explains, Jobs “redesigned the whole business logic around a simplified product line sold through a limited set of outlets.” He cut product offerings down to two: a desktop and a laptop, and no peripherals. He moved most manufacturing to Taiwan, cut software development, and eliminated all but one national retailer, opening a Web store to sell directly to consumers.


  7. I read somewhere that his legacy is: To design your own life. And he sure did help design mine. I didn’t know much about him before yesterday, few details. Today reading a little more I am quite impressed by his passion and determination to find his unique way into the world. A job well done, and a life worth celebrating!

    Very good article Paul, thanks!

  8. Jobs innovated through design.  He could see a jumble of established technological pieces and imagine the beautiful affordable breakthrough devices that could be assembled out of them.

  9. Love the Miles Davis analogy.  And I’d never quite considered that specific point, but I think I basically agree with you, PW.  Davis certainly (and obviously) didn’t invent bebop, but Kind of Blue is a cut above anything Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did, in terms of its beauty and its ability to be wildly experimental yet fetchingly and memorably melodic at the same time.  And there are a few other landmark albums in jazz and rock that are similar, e.g., Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, which is, like Kind of Blue, highly experimental (in Brubeck’s case, with time signatures) yet is one of the most popular jazz albums of all time.  And in rock, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

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