Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- This week’s news about Steve Jobs’s health should matter even to people who’ve never bought an iPod or a share of Apple Inc. stock.
Lacking information about Jobs’s latest illness, questions have focused on what his absence will mean for Apple. How deep is the management team that will run things while he’s on medical leave? What will the impact be on a stock price that’s made Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world? Are enough cool new things in the pipeline to sustain the company’s spectacular financial performance?
While those are all valid issues, they miss a larger point: Love him or loathe him, Jobs is a figure of social and historic significance who has arguably had as much impact on the daily lives of global consumers as anyone you can name.
In an odd way, Apple’s recent spectacular success, combined with Jobs’s larger-than-life image and lightning-rod personality, have obscured just how important a force he has really been, and for how long. After all, an Inc. magazine cover proclaimed that “This Man Has Changed Business Forever” -- in 1981.
In an age when we routinely carry miniature supercomputers in the form of smartphones in our pockets, it’s hard to fully grasp the impact of Jobs’s first great product, the Apple II personal computer. The technological wizardry behind it -- Those high-res graphics! That disk controller! -- largely belonged to co-founder Steve Wozniak. But the vision of placing technology in normal people’s hands, and the passion to build a company devoted to that concept, came from Jobs.
Some of the products that followed the Apple II -- the Apple III and Lisa, to name a couple -- were unsuccessful. But the 1984 debut of the Macintosh continues to reverberate -- and not just because of the famously once-aired television commercial that introduced it. While other innovations of the day have long since vanished (the 3-1/2 inch computer diskette, for instance), the Mac, with its graphical user interface, is still going strong -- to say nothing of its influence on the development of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, the software that powers the vast majority of the world’s computers.
Apple didn’t collapse when Jobs left in 1986 after losing a power struggle with John Sculley, whom he recruited to be chief executive officer. But no less an authority than Sculley, in a remarkably clear-eyed interview published last year, says it was the strength of Jobs’s vision that allowed Apple to thrive for several years in the absence of the visionary himself.
“The one who should really be given credit for all that stuff while I was there is really Steve,” Sculley said in the interview with the website Cult of Mac. “During my era, really everything we did was following his philosophy … Unfortunately, I wasn’t as good at it as he was.”
During his decade in the wilderness, Jobs worked on developing a new computer company, called NeXT. He also found another way to affect the mass culture through his purchase of an obscure piece of filmmaker George Lucas’s empire, a tiny computer-graphics unit called Pixar. His eventual sale of what became the blockbuster animation studio made him the largest shareholder in Walt Disney Co.
While Jobs oversaw Pixar’s success, he wasn’t truly its auteur. But today’s Apple is utterly his creation, made possible by technology that finally caught up with the ideas of functionality, design and user experience that have been in his head from the beginning.
When he became CEO in 1997, Apple was months or maybe weeks from bankruptcy. He stabilized the company and, with the introduction of the candy-colored first iMac computers, began laying the foundation for its revival.
The best way to realize Jobs’s impact is simply to remember what things were like before the iPod was introduced, less than 10 years ago. Portable music for most people meant a Sony Discman, with limited-capacity MP3 players the province of the technically adept, the young and those blase about piracy. Music and movies were purchased or rented at stores. Wireless phones were for making phone calls. Web surfing was done only on computers.
In a remarkably short time period, the iPod, iTunes Music Store and iPhone upended such products, not to mention the enormous industries like wireless telephony and media that stood behind them. And with last year’s spectacular introduction of the iPad, Jobs has done it again, inaugurating a new product category -- tablet computers -- that are eating into the sales of more traditional computers and rewriting the rules for the publishing and entertainment industries yet again.
Apple is certainly capable of subpar products, as any user of its MobileMe service can attest. Jobs’s insistence on closed systems -- you can’t even replace an iPhone battery -- and tightfisted control of the user experience can upset a lot of people and provide an opening for competitors to exploit. We saw it before with the rise of Windows; we’re seeing it now with the flood of smartphones, and soon tablets, running Google Inc.’s Android operating system.
But even those competitors, if they’re honest with themselves, will acknowledge Jobs’s impact on their approach. In the 1980s, it was clear that future computers were going to look and work like the Mac, even if most of them might not actually be Macs. Android is an increasingly polished and sophisticated environment for mobile devices -- but at its core, it is still an effort to provide an iPhone-like experience for smartphone buyers who for whatever reason don’t want an iPhone.
The fact is that the best points of comparison with Jobs may not be Bill Gates and Jack Welch so much as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Edison wasn’t the first to harness electricity, and Ford didn’t invent the auto. But both were geniuses in taking the technologies of the day and making them accessible to the masses, in the process changing the way everyday people did everyday things. And that’s what Jobs has done.
Sculley, in his interview, was asked whether Jobs’s legendary control-freak perfectionism didn’t sometimes drive him a bit crazy. His answer captured Jobs perfectly: “It’s OK to be driven a little crazy by someone who is so consistently right.”
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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