Death of a visionary

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Apple, Mac
Tags: , , , , ,

We all knew he had serious health problems. The absences, resignation as CEO and his increasingly gaunt appearance told their own story. But I don’t think any of us expected Steve Jobs to die now. Not at 56.

His legacy not only as a business leader and a technologist but also as a major influence on popular culture is without question.

I never met the man but his DNA is everywhere in my life.  I am writing this on the iMac I work on every day. I rarely go anywhere without my iPhone. Every member of our family has an iPod of some description and one is usually jacked into the car stereo. We have MacBooks and Mac Minis. We download movies every week on Apple TV. The iPad goes with us on every trip.

Millions of others will have a similar inventory of Apple products they never knew they needed but now can’t live without. We’re not all myopic Apple fanboys – we buy the products for the simple reason that they are well-made, innovative and intuitive to use. You just don’t sell more than 28 million iPads [at June 2011] if it isn’t any good.

Jobs and Apple did not invent the personal computer, the MP3 music player, the mobile phone or the table PC. Jobs’ genius – and there is no question that he drove Apple’s transformation over the last 10-15 years – was to redefine what those devices looked like and how they functioned. So radical and successful has this been that the very names – iPod, iPhone and iPad – have become synonymous with those market segments and rivals stumble over themselves to copy and catch up. To do that in one industry segment (Blackberry, Hoover, Sellotape, for example) is an achievement. To do it across three is astonishing.

Just as important was Jobs’ ability to admit mistakes and learn from them.

When Apple made missteps, it not only corrected them but often did so in revolutionary ways. Apple – like Microsoft – was initially slow to recognise the power of the internet. Now it drives everything they do. Remember, when the iPod launched in 2001, there was no iTunes store – you could only add tracks you’d ripped from CDs or downloaded via illegal operations like Napster –  and Jobs famously questioned why anyone would want to watch a movie on a small device. Apple soon figured out that by making the legal purchase of digital content easy, it could become a major player in the content market and its success laid the foundations for the App Store.  When the iPad debuted in 2010, Apple initially excluded third party developers for the App Store but soon backtracked, sparking an astonishing explosion of creativity that has seen more than a billion downloads.

This too, remember, was a company that was on its knees in 1996 when Jobs returned as CEO after being ousted from Apple in a board struggle in 1985. Apple had delivered one dud after another The turnaround – from the first candy-coloured iMacs to the iPad – has been one of the great business success stories of modern times. Before Jobs’ second coming, Apple stock was in the toilet, trading at a few dollars. Last month it hit a record $422.

Jobs’ genius was not only in developing great products but creating a mystique and desire for them among ordinary consumers, not just computer geeks. Whoever heard of people queueing outside a store days in advance for a consumer electronics device  for God’s sake? Apple users talk about loving their Macs, iPhones and iPads. That passion is a rare and powerful thing, what marketing guru Kevin Roberts calls a “lovemark” – an emotional connection with a product or brand that delivers beyond expectation.

Jobs and Apple cleverly exploited that passion and desire not only with innovative and superbly-engineered products but by reinventing the computer store experience with its futuristic Apple stores, tightly controlling its PR and staging product launches that were like rock concerts.

All this created an aura around Apple that few other companies could match and in Jobs, who took centre stage at all the major launches, they had a CEO so charismatic that if you asked any ordinary person on the street in the developed world who ran Apple, I’d wager most of them would correctly name “Steve Jobs”. I’d also wager that most could not name the CEO of Blackberry, Sony, General Motors, or just about any other corporation you wish to name.

There has been much speculation about Apple’s future without Steve Jobs. In the short to mid-term, its success will likely continue. I have no doubt that it has products lined up for the next 18-24 months at least and is working on more innovations that we can only guess at.

Steve Jobs of course, did not – as the hype often seemed to imply – design and build every product single-handed or come up with every bright idea. There are plenty of other very smart people at Apple well-versed in the company culture and share Jobs’ famously demanding aesthetic and engineering standards and attention to detail.

What they may miss long-term however, is his over-arching strategic view, philosophy and, above all, his personality. Steve Jobs defined Apple and it remains to be seen whether the company can retain its focus and identity without him.

Call it gut instinct or genius, Steve Jobs had it in spades. He will be rightly remembered as one of the great entrepreneurs, inventors and visionaries of our time as well as one of the most inspiring, as his 2005 address to Stanford University below demonstrates. His speech was entitled “How to live before you die”.

  1. […] from Bermuda and Cuba add their online tributes to the late Steve […]

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