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Think Different

What can I say about Steve Jobs? It has already all been said, both by technology enthusiasts (AKA geeks) and surprisingly by many people with little or no connection to the tech world. Not surprisingly almost every commentary on his life and achievements has been very positive (apart from one by a leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, but more on that later) and why wouldn’t it be? It’s difficult to tell at this early stage but it seems likely he will be remembered as a genuine genius who really did make a difference.

But was he really a genius? What was it about him which meant he was able to make such a difference and to change the world of technology so much? He wasn’t a technical or engineering genius, he wasn’t a traditional management genius, he wasn’t brilliant at investment, or marketing, or anything else for that matter. But he did have a unique combination of skills and he was in the right place at the right time.

Jobs did what other entrepreneurs say they will do but almost universally fail to deliver on. He did do things differently and he did take real risks. Despite what they say, it seems to me that few modern companies really do that. They actually don’t take risks and they never do anything genuinely entrepreneurial.

Every other major company (even including Google to some extent) really just follow along and take the simple and safe route. They copy, they take the easy options, and they follow established business best practice. That might be a good way to keep the board happy and to keep the company safe short term but it’s an obvious formula for failure long term.

During the period when Jobs was away (1985 to 1997) Apple was run in a similar way to most other companies, and it gradually failed because of that. It was not the sort of company which flourished under the leadership of a bunch of “suits”. It probably could have survived but it would have been just another PC maker no different from all the rest.

Looking at the products introduced by Apple with and without Jobs it’s obvious that his guidance was essential. There was just one genuinely brilliant, innovative, and risky product introduced while he was away: that was the Newton. The Newton truly was a superb device. Understanding it from a technical perspective just made how far ahead it was even more obvious. Newton aficionados (of which I was one in case you hadn’t guessed) used to say the Newton came to Apple from a time warp into the future, it was that advanced. Maybe too advanced. Jobs killed the Newton project when he returned, just as it was starting to work really well. I’m not sure why. Maybe he just didn’t like something so great existing which he didn’t create.

Still, we can easily forgive him for killing off one great product because he introduced six even greater ones in return. Yes, I think he introduced six products that were so great that anyone else would be venerated for creating even one of them. OK, so here are the six products: the Apple II, the original Mac, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Also, if you count the software driving these devices (Mac OS X, iOS) as separate products then his contribution is even greater.

None of these products were the first of their kind but they were the first brilliantly executed examples of their kinds. There were earlier home computers, MP3 players, smart phones, and tablets for example. But no one wanted to use them (I don’t mean that literally but they were compromised and not suitable for many users). Apple took a bit longer to create its products but when it did create them it really did the job properly.

I keep talking about Apple’s success as if it could be entirely attributed to Jobs. That’s not what I really mean. Apple has brilliant engineers and product designers. The main reason Apple succeeds is because its products are just so good. And I totally reject those (who really just don’t get it) who say Apple’s success is more to do with marketing and the “reality distortion field”. People can only be fooled that way temporarily.

I said Apple has a lot of brilliant engineers but surely other companies do as well. Of course they do: they probably have people as good as Apple’s. So why don’t other companies also produce brilliant products? Because they are all operating according to the old traditional conservative business model. The one which almost caused Apple to fail in the 90s and is gradually leading to the failure of companies like HP, Nokia, and RIM (and maybe even Microsoft).

Apple under Jobs knew how to create a culture where individual brilliance (such as that of Jonathan Ive) could flourish without being buried in a pile of worthless business nonsense like business plans, financial justifications, and (that ultimate source of all mediocrity) best practice. It was as much what Jobs didn’t do as what he did do that made the difference.

There was one more thing too (I couldn’t resist that). Jobs seemed to know what people wanted before even they did. So many people rubbished the concepts behind the iMac, iPod, and iPad before they were released. It’s actually quite amusing to go back and see what the “experts” said. Well they were all wrong and Jobs was right. He almost always was and he wasn’t scared to abandon traditional business wisdom to follow his ideas. That’s what made him great.

Now I want to share a few of the best comments I have found about Jobs’ life.

A lot of commentary came through Twitter so this is relevant: “Once in a rare while, somebody comes along who doesn’t just raise the bar, they create an entirely new standard of measurement.” (Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO).

Short and to the point: “Steve Jobs was the man.” (Tony Hawk, retired pro skateboarder and actor).

This is good advice (but hard to carry out): “Remember Steve Jobs this way, in his own words: Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” (Dan Gillmor, digital-media entrepreneur and author).

And here’s some “intelligent” commentary from our fundamentalist Christian friends: “Westboro will picket his funeral. He had a huge platform; gave God no glory & taught sin.” (Margie Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church on Twitter). And when it was discovered that tweet came from an iPhone: “Rebels mad cuz I used iPhone to tell you Steve Jobs is in hell. God created iPhone for that purpose! :)”. Well if Jobs is in Hell and scum like this go to Heaven all I can say is I know where I want to go!

And finally the best and saddest (from Twitter user @TechZader): “The world lost some of its magic today…”.

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