WSJ: Jobs Belongs with Edison and Ford


steve-jobsBy Holam W. Jenkins

People will be trying to isolate and bottle the “leadership secrets of Steve Jobs” till the end of business time. But of course it’s impossible.

His story isn’t just the story of a person, but the combination of time, place and person, spawning a career in industrial design of awesome proportions. Mr. Jobs founded two pivotal companies in American history. Both happened to be named Apple. One was the Apple of the Macintosh, the other was the Apple of the iPhone.

From the beginning, he saw the human possibility in the extraordinarily complex hardware and software engineering of digital devices. The Macintosh should work in a way that’s intuitive, that doesn’t require an owner’s manual. And today you only need to survey the blogosphere or friends with toddlers to hear stories of 3-year-olds picking up an iPad and quickly sussing out what it’s for.

Then there’s the business story. The first Apple had become, in the minds of the people running it and its investors, a computer company-one riven over whether to follow Bill Gates’s advice and license the Macintosh operating system and make a living raking in fees from clone makers.

That’s the Apple that spit Mr. Jobs out. The second Apple-the Apple of the iPod, iPhone and iPad-was the noncomputer company that Mr. Jobs perhaps instinctively intended all along. A decade after his return, he made it official and changed the name from Apple Computer to Apple. His purpose wasn’t to fill a niche in an industrial landscape, but to realize the full potential of the medium to which Apple had committed itself.

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But let’s also acknowledge that coupled with vision and the pursuit of excellence was hard-headed business strategizing. The triumph of iTunes, the App Store and the incipient Apple Cloud ushered in the era at Apple of network-esque complexity as well as the possibility of network-esque revenues. It made Mr. Jobs, despite himself, an empire builder. Success brought rivals like Google and Amazon. There came the need to anticipate moves and countermoves, the need to play defense. This was an unsung part of the Jobs C.V. in later years. And almost tactless to mention is the garish side effect: the rise of Apple to exceed Microsoft and on some days Exxon Mobil, as the world’s most valuable company.

Now this was an almost inexplicable business success, a miraculous reversal of fortune of the sort that inspires banner headlines and hyperventilating on cable TV when it happens on the ball field. It was an astonishing achievement, emblematic of a man meeting his moment completely, when few men get a chance to meet their moments even partially.

Mr. Jobs’s negotiation of personal relationships has been, by reputation, fraught and idiosyncratic. But whose isn’t? And whatever his interpersonal challenges, a different kind of warmth is also apparent. An image that will become part of the Jobs lore, inevitably, is his extraordinary determination to cling to life, at least partly for the benefit of the company he created and the customers he accrued. His unpathetic willingness to show his withered self in order to introduce to the world the latest wonders of Apple product development was painful and glorious to watch.

What comes to mind now is a forgotten PBS show in the 1980s that tried to explain what was then known as the “quality revolution” in business. Interviewed was some wise old MIT professor who said, if memory serves, “Quality is love.” Mr. Jobs’s determination to make superb products was, one likes to think, an expression of love for the world, life and possibility.

“I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it,” he said in his announcement this week, perhaps his one concession to ordinary sentimentality, for it seems impossible that Apple, or any company, could anticipate another run like Apple’s in the 10 years since the iPod’s introduction.

Indeed, it seems unlikely that even Mr. Jobs, had he remained healthy and in charge, wouldn’t eventually have met a technological wave or strategic development that he couldn’t understand quickly enough and react to. Possibly it’s already here: Television in the age of the digital cloud, a puzzle now taxing many of Silicon Valley’s most creative minds.

And that would have been fine, preferable to the medical torture and premature professional swansong that have been his lot. The legend did not need this almost sacrificial ending to secure for him a place in the industrial pantheon with Edison, Ford and (though it might cause him to curl his lip slightly) Gates.


  1. From Today’s NYT:

    To the Editor:

    Amid all the hosannas to Steven P. Jobs, we might pause to remind ourselves that he was also known for publicly humiliating his employees and abruptly firing them during angry tantrums.

    The ultimate measure of a human being is not the objects he produced, but the way he treated other people — especially those over whom he had power or authority. And on that measure, Mr. Jobs fell short.

    New York, Oct. 6, 2011

    The writer is a professor of education and history at New York University.


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