I’ve been very distracted and unproductive today since reading yesterday’s news of Steve Jobs’ death, on my iPhone, of course. While not at all unexpected, it still somehow felt quite sudden to me, and I’ve been spending my time since I heard the news watching the amazing outpouring of emotion and reflection on his life and his impact on the world in my news feeds on Twitter and Facebook. He was an icon, and I’ve certainly haven’t felt this emotional at the passing of a public figure before. I guess he was my generation’s John Lennon or even John F. Kennedy, but I’d argue his ongoing impact on the world is broader reaching and more profound than either of those two.
I never met the man – the closest I got was brushing past him in the tight aisles of the Whole Foods Market in Palo Alto, but still I felt like I knew him (clearly I was not the only one) and I was inspired by him as an entrepreneur, a product visionary, a technologist, a showman, a marketer, a designer, an artist, a filmmaker, a CEO, and a fearless icon of what’s possible when you have an unswerving commitment to excellence in all things.
While I doubt I’m adding anything fundamentally new here, I do feel compelled to add my views to the torrent of thoughts that have been flowing since October 5th’s news.
My first Apple computer was the Mac SE 30 that my parents bought me (thanks Mom & Dad!) when I started school at Stanford in 1989. Prior to that, I taught myself to program BASIC and learned about hexadecimal notation, shape tables and basic 6502 assembly code on the Franklin Ace 1000 my parents bought when I was in junior high school, which was an Apple ][ clone. Since then, I’ve owned dozens of Apple devices, and take quiet pride in the fact that all my partners at Foundry Group now use Macintosh computers, which was not the case when I moved from California to Boulder, CO to help get Foundry Group off the ground. Happily, they all freely admit their computing lives have become dramatically simpler since they made the switch.
His incredible accomplishments are covered in detail all over the web, but they bear mentioning here, albeit briefly. He started the PC revolution from a Palo Alto garage. He brought the mouse/windows GUI paradigm to the masses with the Macintosh. He ushered in the desktop printing revolution by adopting Adobe’s Postscript technology in the Apple LaserWriter. The Macintosh was long the platform of choice in the world of professional audio and video. After getting kicked out of his own company, he left to create NeXT, which ultimately became the foundation of Mac OSX and brought (stealthily) UNIX into the lives of millions of consumers. He transformed Hollywood and computer animation with his rescue/purchase of Pixar. He mainstreamed portable digital audio music players with the launch of the iPod and transformed Apple from a computer company to a consumer electronics company. He brought the music industry into the digital age with the iTunes Music Store and made his company a force to be reckoned with in the digital media landscape as the largest online retailer of music.
Amazingly, at this point, the pace of disruptive technologies and products that came out of Apple accelerated. The iPhone launched, breaking the wireless carriers’ stranglehold control over phone hardware and software, unleashing a huge amount of innovation that the carriers had been preventing, which not only enable Apple to succeed in this market but also paved the way for the success of Android. The iPhone was unlike any smartphone yet seen, and as Mark Andreessen has said, it was as if it had dropped through a wormhole from five years in the future. Competitors like RIM actually reacted to the launch of the iPhone in disbelief and denied that it could possibly do what Jobs claimed in his unveiling of the original iPhone. And while Jobs & Co didn’t envision the potential of an app ecosystem on the initial iPhone, they were smart enough to recognize the obvious demand as developers and end-users started jail-breaking iPhones, and they moved to open up the system and allow third-party developers a seamless and lucrative way to make their apps available to a huge audience of willing customers. The iOS app ecosystem is now a profoundly important part of today’s technology landscape and unleashed a new wave of innovation and investment opportunity.
And, finally, the iPad. I will admit that this was the product launch I was most dubious about. Even as an Apple fanboy, I was not convinced the world needed a device category between smartphones and laptops. I was skeptical and thought the iPad might wind up a jackalope-type product that didn’t fit any real market need. Of course, my family now owns three iPads, and I use the device daily. Once again, Jobs’ instincts and “no focus groups” orthodoxy nailed it and created a hit product which established a new category, one in which Apple is waiting for a truly worthy competitive product to emerge, even after they launched their second-gen iPad 2. What’s the next act? Maybe the rumored Apple Television will one day emerge – if any company can rethink the fundamental challenges around the living room “lean back” remote-control user experience, it is Apple.
In the end, a few core principles guided his approach to the world, which made him perhaps the greatest CEO of all time and brought Apple to its current position as the most valuable technology company it the world. Steve elevated Design (with a capital D) to a core value in all Apple products and brought beauty to the previously often ugly world of technology. He focused relentlessly on user-centric design and understood the value of editing a product down to his essence, and that choosing what to remove from a product was at least as important as choosing what to put in. He had the courage to cannibalize his own successful products by introducing newer models at that obsoleted the old at the height of their popularity. And he actively resisted dogmatic thought. Apple is the only truly vertically integrated consumer electronics company out there: they design their own chips, their own hardware, do their own industrial design, build their own firmware and software, and created an ecosystem of services surrounding their devices. It is because of this that they have been able to design such elegant products that no competitor has been able to touch. Yet, particularly in Apple’s darkest days, conventional wisdom said that Apple was failing because of its vertical integration. They were failing because they hadn’t left the chip design to Intel, the OS to Microsoft, the hardware to the likes of Dell and the software to 10,000 independent ISVs. Apple’s current market dominance must have been sweet vindication of Jobs’ long-view thinking and core beliefs.
Jobs was a true iconoclast and his impact will be felt for years to come. The world and the future won’t be the same without him shaping it. I’ll miss you Steve.
As a final note, I leave you with Steve’s now famous (and perhaps best ever) commencement speech he gave at Stanford in 2005: