Steve Jobs's emergence as a technology icon was not down to his technical achievements, but rather to his instinct as to what would work, and what experiences consumers would be eager to embrace.
Looking back at Steve Jobs's career from the perspective of today, it is tempting to think of him as the technology guru with the Midas touch. It is easy to overlook the missteps and misjudgments. But without them, it is hard to believe that the man's premature final'decade would have seen his original company clamber back from the edge of disaster to move well into the top 10 per cent of the Fortune 500, with a market valuation ahead of Microsoft.
Was Jobs a master inventor? Arguably not. There are people who have generated and developed a wider range of original concepts. But few have pushed so many into mainstream use.
The skill of Steve Jobs lay not so much in making the unlikely seem possible but taking the effort out of using technology. The irony is that much of that success comes down to software design when his main interest lay in hardware technology and design.
Originally, Jobs did not have much involvement with the ill-fated but ground-breaking Lisa computer, although he famously brought to Apple the idea of a graphical interface from a visit to the nearby Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He later recalled there were two things he overlooked in his visit to PARC that would a decade on prove to be vitally important: one of them a software innovation that would provide him with a way back from disaster.
Jobs did manage to involve himself closely in the running of the Macintosh project – the machine that would succeed where the Lisa failed – but the design belonged to other engineers. Jobs was the manager who helped make it happen. He then, fatefully, enticed a manager – Pepsi's John Sculley – into Apple who would ultimately eject Jobs from the company.
From there, things did not go well for Jobs or for Apple: success seems to come only when the two were combined. However, without the enforced separation we might today wonder whatever happened to that little company with the funny-named computer that got wiped out by Windows. We might not even be using the Web to ask the question.
In his absence, Apple developed innovative products such as the Newton PDA, the forerunner of today's handheld computers and smartphones, and the HyperCard software, which brought hyperlinking to a mainstream audience years before the World Wide Web.
Soon after being forced out of Apple, Jobs bought a CGI company from film director George Lucas. For Jobs, Pixar was a way back into the hardware business. The Image Computer, however, was an expensive white elephant that threatened to sink the company. Pixar side-stepped into the animation business, providing the revolutionary 3D effects for the unexpected hit Toy Story,'and a way back from disaster for Jobs.
During that time, Jobs found yet another hardware product to develop: the NeXT workstation. It was underpowered and underperformed. But, as with Pixar, software provided the way out. The core of the business in reality was NeXTStep, a combination of operating system and object-oriented development environment. Object orientation, demonstrated in the Smalltalk language, was one of the concepts Jobs overlooked on his visit to PARC a decade earlier. Jobs chose to focus on adding object-oriented extensions to C rather than focus on a comparatively new and unknown language, but eschewing the emerging standard of C++, considering it too unwieldy.
CERN became one of the few customers of NeXT, providing the environment in which Tim Berners-Lee developed the software for the World Wide Web. However, no one realised the contribution that Objective C made until much later. Again, poor workstation sales forced Jobs to find another path. He sold NeXT's hardware operation to Canon but, crucially, held on to the software.
At that point, things turned round for Jobs. Toy Story made its mark, and Pixar's star was in the ascendent. Two CEOs later, Apple was desperate for a change that might, for once, rescue the company. The plan was to revive its now quite old and creaky operating system with something more advanced. It was the only way to fend off the threat from Microsoft. Fourth time lucky, the Redmond computer giant had finally found a hit with Windows 95. One option was BeOS but Apple chose NeXT Software. Within a matter of months Jobs displaced Gil Amelio as CEO.
Jobs wasted no time in telling executives Apple's hardware products sucked – a move of some chutzpah given his recent record – and set about replacing them. But Jobs was back in the consumer market rather than the professional sector and he had demonstrated with his work with Steve Wozniak that he knew this market far better. And he believed that NeXTStep could reinvent the core Mac OS.
The result was not just a matter of replacing Apple's products but redefining how people would look at computers and electronic technology. The iMac set the tone for the new look Apple. In place of beige boxes, you had bright colours and a promise: a machine that 'just works'. This philosophy was not without its problems when you look at Apple's less than successful operations, such as MobileMe. But it has proved far more important than the concept of being the popular image of lone inventor.
Apple tooks ideas – such as MP3 players and phones – and put them together in new ways that were far more attractive to ordinary users than to gadget enthusiasts and geeks. The scroll- and touch-wheel was not a new idea in itself but it's implementation made far more sense than the forest of 'up', 'down', 'select' buttons on competing products. For once, people could scroll through with ease.
Similarly, Apple did not invent the tablet computer. Several PC makers had a go at making tablet computers in the 1980s and 1980s. Psion had a profitable sideline in that business before choosing to concentrate on the theoretically more lucrative consumer sector.
Microsoft worked on tablet concepts a number of times during the 1990s and 2000s. Yet Redmond came up empty-handed each time. Somehow, Windows did not shoehorn neatly into the package. But, just when people thought the concept itself was at fault, Apple had managed to tweak and tease OS X into place.
By the time the overgrown iPhone appeared, Apple had everything in place to make it work: a connection to a host PC; good connections for networking; a software infrastructure with a bulging collection of applications; and a user interface that made sense for finger rather than keyboards or mouses.
But that was not an invention as such: Apple pulled together a number of concepts that had begun development as long ago as the 1960s. However, instead of confining them to a lab, they were repackaged and made available in a form that consumers could use. Making it 'just work' is a theme that is sometimes forgotten in an environment where throwing as many disparate ideas as possible into a product is used as a substitute for development.
With Jobs as the boss, Apple engineers were always driven to make things work, not look good on a set of foils. When other CEOs look at the surprisingly high value of Apple's stock, they need to realise that is the net result of attention to detail not major mergers cooked up on a golf course. It's by stepping into those shoes they can play catch-up. But it's also worth remembering, even he had to 'think different' in the end. *
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