Thursday, October 06, 2011

Saying goodbye to Steve

Every generation has its innovator. We’ve just lost ours.

You don’t have to be an unabashed worshipper at the Apple altar to appreciate the impact Steve Jobs had on not only the tech landscape, but the world in general. Even if you’ve never bought or used a Mac, iPhone or iPad, your life has been touched by Mr. Jobs and his company in some way. Any computer, smartphone, tablet from any vendor has been influenced by one of Apple’s creations. Jobs was obsessed with how things looked, worked and felt. His drive to make everything he touched insanely great made him a leader of our time, unafraid to introduce products that carved out new markets or diverged radically from anything that had been tried before.

Before Jobs came along, no one used personal computers in their homes or offices. The PC actually existed on various forms, but it was an ugly, clunky, kit-like thing that came in a box and needed to be assembled. It probably had no keyboard, and was instead programmed using various switches and buttons. Likewise, the display was either a printer or a series of lights.

When Jobs and his co-founder Steve Wozniak built the original Apple I in Jobs’s family’s garage, they kickstarted the PC revolution by turning inelegant, expensive technology into something everyone could use and afford. You didn’t have to be a hobbyist or an expert to derive value from the experience. Wozniak may have been the engineer, but it was Jobs who figured out how to convince the rest of us that we needed these things in our lives.

The next product from the two Steves, the Apple II, changed everything. With a case and a brand, it allowed mere mortals to bring a fully-assembled, fully-capable machine home and be up and running before bedtime. Homes and offices were transformed by a computer whose basic fundamentals ultimately became the blueprint for virtually every other computer sold since.

The Macintosh, introduced in 1984, similarly took existing technology and turned it into a populist reality. Contrary to popular belief, the Mac was hardly the first computer to sport a mouse or a window-like graphical user interface. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) could rightly take credit for these technologies. But it was Steve Jobs who, after a visit to Xerox, realized their potential and told his team they needed to build a new computer for the masses that was radically different from the green-screened, text-heavy machines of the time.

Once again, the Mac changed everything and once again it was Steve Jobs plucking an existing technology from obscurity and figuring out some way to elegantly package it and sell it to you and me. It was a process later repeated in music players (iPod), smartphones (iPhone) and tablets (iPad). Jobs saw not what was, but what could be, and wasn’t afraid to break with market convention if he thought consumers would benefit.

With the music industry awash in red ink and declining sales in the late 1990s, Jobs saw an opportunity to turn it on its ear. The iPod and iTunes rewrote how we consume content and broke the record distributors’ former stranglehold on the industry. More notably, they managed to convince legions of Napster-loving consumers who had been stealing tunes online to come back into the fold. Jobs built a dominant business around legal music downloads, creating a market where previous, more conventionally minded players either could not or would not.

The same model, extended later to other forms of content like movies, television and software, is now an established industry standard, and Apple’s online distribution capability has become a critical pillar of its growth over the last decade.

It’s easy to say Jobs wasn’t a follower. But being a leader and being a visionary are two very different states of being. Within the halls of Apple, Jobs could be a micromanaging, difficult presence. He fretted, some would say obsessed, over every last detail of every device and service that went out the door. Nothing was too small to escape his attention, and it was easy to ridicule him for being as tightly wound as he was.

But genius takes many forms. And being a radical force of change in a world that often punishes those who dare to be different requires stepping off the conventional, easygoing path. Steve Jobs never accepted the current state as good enough, and wasn’t shy about pushing whatever buttons necessary to move the bar to another level. He was a once-in-a-lifetime leader, and the shoes he left behind won't simply be filled.

We can’t, of course, replace a Steve jobs any more than we can, say, a Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci. But if we can learn to focus on what can be instead of on what already is, we’d be well on our way to raising the bar in our own lives, too.


21 Wits said...

Amazing words you've shared Carmi, and especially your closing words, "on what can be" instead of what already is. Too many people think change is such a difficult thing to do. But while you spoke about the changes that Steve did, how things were, where they mind wandered off to my father's first cell phone...that came in a case and was the size of a telephone book, (remember those?) dad would often stash it in his trunk, because you just don't leave things on the seats in areas of was quite the bother-some-clunky-thing ...although it worked, but somebody (thankfully) saw what it could be...and now look what we have...I'm all in for what can just never know unless you try something!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post write so eloquently.... iThankYou!