Visionary at Apple's core leaves void in his wake
ANALYSIS:Steve Jobs built great technology into our lives. He made devices that were cool and sexy
GRACING THE cover of Timemagazine in 1982, an illustration of a young, luxuriously mustachiod “Steven Jobs” (as the cover had it – we did not yet know him more informally as Steve) gave America the poster boy for a new American phenomenon.
With an apple (as in the fruit) balanced on his head, shot through by an arrow zapping out of an Apple (the other type) hovering in the background, Jobs embodied the main story for that February issue: “Striking it Rich: America’s Risk Takers”.
As Jobs announces his departure as chief executive of Apple for health reasons, the iconic, unimaginably successful company he co-founded, the Time cover is an early touchstone for his extraordinary career. It was the first – but certainly not the last – time Jobs would both herald and symbolise a vast cultural and industry shift.
Back then, Jobs and his high-school pal and company co-founder Steve Wozniak had recently become America’s shiniest new millionaires. They represented a brand new California gold rush – technology; and a brand new market within it – personal computers.
They headed a company with a wacky, irreverent, non-technological name: Apple. They sold computers for normal people, not just nerds (“The computer for the rest of us” as the famous Apple slogan of the 1980s would run). They named their computers after children (the Lisa) and apples (the Mac) at a time when competitors used boring, forgettable model numbers.
Jobs epitomised a different kind of entrepreneur – young, brash, verbal, formidably optimistic, unafraid, technology-adept. Insanely rich by his early 20s, Jobs would prove, contrary to received wisdom and previous evidence, that geeks could pull (singer Joan Baez was among those early Jobs girlfriends).
Unimaginable a decade before, and largely thanks to Apple, tech was now sexy. IPOs no longer were dull and worthy market affairs but quick doors to vast, instantaneous wealth. The geek might not inherit the earth, but he sure could buy a swank Valley house and a Learjet.
Redefining Valley culture was just the starting point for Jobsian innovation. Consider advertising. Apple, under Jobs’s guidance, blew open that field with a majestic, movie-quality ad for the soon-to-be-launched Mac computer. Run in January 1984 at half time for the Superbowl, the Mac ad took 1984 as its theme and was directed by film director Ridley Scott.
Easily found on YouTube, the ad – the most expensive to date at the time – is still breathtakingly beautiful and captures yet another Jobs cultural epiphany: iconic ad design and iconic launches are as integral to iconic brands as iconic product design.
Most important, of course, is iconic product design – the crucial core (so to speak) of Apple under Jobs, and the key to Apple’s Lazarus-like revival in the past decade. Jobs had left Apple for years in the late 1980s after differences with his board, before being triumphantly brought back in the late 1990s. By then, Apple was so close to collapse that reporters referred to the Apple beat as the “deathwatch”.
Not one to sit back and enjoy his wealth, Jobs had spent that time building a computer animation company, Pixar, that would eventually revolutionise an entirely different industry – Hollywood. Toy Storymade computer-generated characters and scenes endearing and watchable, and more or less invented a now commonplace genre.
Apple, however, was now the centre for his energies and a miraculous corporate resurrection pivoted on Jobs’s insistence on putting meticulous research and radical insight into product design for both hardware and software.
Design was always king. Jobs was so proud of the design of the first little Macs that he had the design team sign the interior casing (unscrew an old Mac from the 1980s, look inside the cover and you can see them all there, etched into the plastic).
The result over the years – phase one, when Jobs defined and made hugely successful the personal computer sector, and phase two, when he returned to rejuvenate the company at an annual salary of a dollar – has been products and services that are almost always more expensive than competitor offerings, and that, sometimes annoyingly, often won’t integrate with other non-Apple products and systems.
But they are always oh-so-beautiful and, the killer point, effortlessly intuitive to use. They also ooze street cred and – one of Jobs’s great insights – are not seen as “technology products” but simply as cool products people want to buy, to do cool stuff.
Often the cool stuff means things people didn’t know they wanted to do, until Apple created the product or service. And typically, Apple has been consistently so far ahead in its product vision under Jobs that competitors scramble for months, letting Apple dominate the market.
Astonishingly, Jobs can be credited with carving out five new market areas across four decades of innovation: personal computers (the Mac), digital music players (the iPod), online music markets (iTunes), mobile smartphones (the iPhone), and most recently, tablet computers (the iPad). Most companies, most entrepreneurs, long to create just one. And that is why Jobs is seen as the messiah of the brand.
Jobs’s battle with pancreatic cancer, followed by a liver transplant, subsequent breaks from running the company, and his drawn appearance in recent years had already caused occasional market shudders.
His step-down now is not wholly unexpected, but still shocking. So aligned is the man with the brand and products, that many fear the company will fade without his direct leadership.
Though Jobs remains as chairman, Apple will be sorely tested to prove it can continue to do as it has.
Jobs is sui generis; his only real competitor has ever been himself and his own creativity. His departure as chief executive cannot but signal the end of a singular vision – and a magnificent era in technology.
Karlin Lillington is a technology journalist and columnist at The Irish Timesand a board member at RTÉ