Steve Jobs: Agent of change
By Aaron Pressman
The opinions expressed are his own.
It’s probably fitting that on the day Steve Jobs died the company he co-founded was vying for the crown of most valuable with Exxon Mobil, the legacy of an earlier titan of commerce, John D. Rockefeller. In the early 20th century it was Rockefeller who had the vision to remake entire industries and help modernize the U.S. economy while creating vast fortunes in the process.
Jobs’ legacy may become equally great. Starting at the dawn of the personal computer age, Jobs’ visionary moves at Apple rippled across the technology industry and helped ready the economy for the information age.
With Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography coming out next month, the study of Jobs and the roots of his success is just getting started.
The amazing commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005 is a good starting point. Many knew that Jobs had dropped out of Reed College after less than a year but Jobs explains in his speech that it wasn’t the classroom he despised but the control. He actually hung around Reed for another 18 months and sat in the classes, including a calligraphy one, that most interested him.
There are many, many videos of Jobs on the web worth watching.
Jobs was kicked out of Apple in 1985 only to return a decade later when the company was on the brink of failure. He quickly honed Apple’s product lines and killed projects across the company. That didn’t make him popular, as you can see in this clip from Apple’s 1997 developer conference when a programmer lambasts Jobs for killing off a particular document format. One line in the video from Steve jumped out as particularly Jobsian: “Some mistakes will be made along the way. That’s good because at least some decisions are being made along the way. And we’ll find the mistakes and we’ll fix them.”
Some Apple fans make the mistake of believing that Apple is a perfect company, that no product is released before it has been perfected by Jobs and his team. Even a cursory scan of Apple’s major unveilings puts lie to that myth, from the over-priced G4 Cube to the expensive and underpowered MobileMe service.
Jobs made many mistakes in his illustrious career but he learned from the errors and did his best to fix them along the way.
Beautiful design was one of Jobs’ highest values though it sometimes led him astray. At NeXT Computer, the company he started after leaving Apple, Jobs’ perfectionism led to a product that was absolutely gorgeous and filled with cutting-edge technologies but priced well beyond the means of its target market of university students, artists and graphic designers. The G4 Cube, too, had great looks but a high price tag and murky marketing.
By 2005, Jobs had learned his lesson. The gorgeous and self-contained Mac mini was not burdened with the latest and greatest gee-whiz features. It carried a low, low price and a brilliant marketing message for a clear target audience. Switch from a cheap Windows computer to the mini and bring your old monitor, mouse and keyboard along for the ride.
Jobs also matured in his dealings with other business leaders. After saving the music business from itself with the iTunes store, Jobs quickly found himself at war with the major record labels. Resenting Apple’s domination of digital downloads, most of the major record labels turned to Jobs’ competitors when they were ready to offer higher-quality and unlocked music files. It was a rare setback for Jobs when he relented to the labels’ demand for higher music prices in return for DRM-free downloads.
But when it came time to add electronic books to the iTunes ecosystem, it was Jobs who played the competition for fools. Swooping in with a new pricing model that would give book publishers unprecedented control over retail pricing of ebooks, Jobs had realized that content makers could be his most powerful allies.
At the end of his Stanford address, Jobs offered an optimist’s view of death. “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
The world is poorer today lacking Steve Jobs’ powerful influence as an agent of change. But the way is cleared for the new to turn their visions to reality.