Steve Jobs: American Hero?
The stories will get longer, the tributes louder, the words more flowery, although it's hard to conceive of how; Apple is in the headlines nearly every single day these days. If it isn't a new product that's rumored, it's a new product that's coming, or somebody else's new product that being demolished, or someone heralding the end of the PC era.
So let me step into Mr. Peabody's WayBack machine and return to 1977, when I bought my first Apple product. It was, of course, an Apple ][, and I still have some of the peripherals in a box in the closet, in fact I might even have the original machine in there too, it's been so long since I looked, but I cannot bear to throw any of it away.
Why did I buy it? I can't imagine, except that a friend and I had laboriously soldered together an Altair 8800, although in fairness it was my friend who did all of the soldering and me who did the, uh, reading from the manual. Once it was done there was little to do, and I left it at his house because he wanted to play with it. Anyway, once the Apple ][ debuted, I wanted one, simply because "it worked" and there wouldn't be (ha ha) a lot of messing around with the innards and heavy technical nonsense. (I completely missed the fact that there was an Apple 1, but I guess so did the rest of the world.) Eventually I would get an Apple ][e, and a raft of disk drives, diskettes, bigger monitors, CP/M boards, joysticks, and even a 300 baud MicroModem so I could talk to myself from upstairs to downstairs.
"It worked." That was the beginning, and I can't find a better place to hang the success of the company than on that two word phrase. That was largely Woz at the beginning, but it was Jobs who made it his mantra, and who insisted on total control of the product until "it worked" and didn't require a high-techie in the next room to keep it operating.
Young, and full of piss and vinegar he rode furiously through successive iterations, and then suddenly threw it all away, falling in love with a new paradigm, the GUI interface, and bet the company on a whole new form factor, operating system, data input, screen size, and more. It would come to define the company, although few would realize it until much later.
The Mac actually languished for a while, but Jobs held firm, upgrading, adding memory, improving the OS, and it caught on, first with students and designers (aided in no small part by particularly clever softwares that made use of the interface and newly developed laser printers.) And the Mac looked to be on its way to dominance, but the IT priesthood, having been weaned on IBM was having no part of it, and stuck with Burroughs and Data General and Big Blue, which handed the crown jewels to a small startup in Phoenix, later Redmond, and the market slithered away.
Jobs, his managerial style cantankerous if not simply rude and abrupt, was deemed disruptive and he was cashiered. A multi-multi millionaire already, he might have just bought a yacht and enjoyed life, but as we all know he started NeXT, and later bought hardware oriented Pixar, turning the latter into one of the preeminent animation companies in the world, and eventually turning the former into the one of the foundational building blocks of the current Macintosh OSX. Quite a resume even if he had just stopped thee.
The more recent history, is, needless to say, history. Taking a company which was famously declared dead and turning it into the most valuable corporation in America, launching a narrow line of products which work so amazingly well that competitors often last mere weeks in the battle, and doing it all while fighting a cancer which has returned more than once, making plans for a grandiose campus on the shards of once-Hewlett Packard property, and ripping the heart out of the seemingly impervious personal computer industry with the introduction of a simple tablet.
Who else has done this? Henry Ford? Thomas Edison? Alexander Bell? If there's a greater living person in business I can't think of a name. I'm terribly sad to think that the announcement likely means he's quite close to the end, for wanting such control and relinquishing it so honorably can mean only one thing, at least to me. He's recognized that it's time to pass the torch, to stand back from his creation and let others drive the train for some shortened time while he can still watch and perhaps give some advice.
Knowing that Apple is usually working 2-4 years ahead may be some small comfort for investors, but I am so saddened by the prospect of the loss of this giant, who brought me and a billion others into the age we so take for granted.
Thank you Steve.