Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs, RiP

He was a technical AND marketing genius. I do not remember a single person who has had such deep impact over such a sustained period, as Steve Jobs has had, on the state-of-the-art in multiple consumer-facing industries. Personal computing, animation films, portable music players, music and entertainment marketing, smartphones, and hand-held tablet computers – all these are markets which he created, and in which he led his company to success at a level that can only be dreamed of by other companies. He did not make products – he made objects of desire. He changed the ways of working of every industry that he touched.
He built the first commercially successful personal computer in 1982 – the Apple II, after first developing the prototype in a garage, along with another technical genius, Steve Wozniak, whose autobiography is titled iWoz. This was the first commercial computer to have a mouse and an OS with graphical user interface. For several years – maybe 10 years, no machine came out on the market with comparable graphical OS. This probably represents the longest period of a technical monopoly ever.
He then went on to build the successors, called Macintosh computers, or Mac for short, which has been through several avatars. They became the gold standard for ease of use and stylish looks. Like every product that Jobs introduced, they were objects of desire, that sold even though they were usually far more expensive than the competition.
The famous story of how he got thrown out of the company he had founded is too well-known to recount, but genius that he was, he continued to develop cutting edge technology, in a company appropriately called NeXT. While the company never did come out with a commercial launch, several technologies developed there were incorporated into later versions of the Mac OS and other products. During that phase when he had nothing to do with Apple, he also bought and spent time on building a young startup company called Pixar Animation, where he learnt and taught the world how to to create full-length ultra-realistic 3D animation feature films using cutting edge computing technologies that his company used, as well as nifty software that it developed for internal use. The only other company that had successfully made animation films before, Disney, had made 2D films. Toy Story, Pixar's first film, was a blockbuster hit heralded a new genre in personal entertainment. It was inevitable that Disney and Pixar would merge, especially after Apple Inc reclaimed Jobs as its own. However, the success of Pixar and the deal with Disney made Jobs wealthy independent of Apple – an important factor that allowed him to dictate his own terms when he came back. Apple had become a basket case in the nearly 10 years that it ran without Jobs – to the extent that Jobs got arch rivals Microsoft into the company to continue to make Office for the Mac, and also a significant stake in Apple. This horrified Apple loyalists, and people felt that Microsoft had bought into Apple at a throwaway price, that allowed Apple to raise some much needed money and to stay alive, something that Microsoft also needed to defend themselves against charges of monopolistic behaviour. The reality was that Microsoft needed Apple to be alive, not kicking. But he had not contended with Jobs' steely determination to reinvent Apple.
Jobs' speech at Stanford's commencement, Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, is an all-time classic with advice for anyone who aspires to be a creative success. It is a story of persistence and resilience, along with curiosity and willingness to question the weight of collective wisdom. It is something that every young person on the threshold of a career would be well advised to read and internalise.
Jobs' second innings with Apple has been even more exciting than the first, by almost any measure. He revived a moribund company to become the most valuable company on Earth by market capitalisation and profits. Jobs has left behind a company that has more liquid cash resources than the US Government. It sits on the largest cash pile in the world of any manufacturing company. It may be surpassed probably only by Berkshire Hathaway, which is mainly an investment company.
Jobs' second innings at Apple began with the i-Mac – with transparent plastic-encased monitors, computers and peripherals, not much functional difference, but great looks that evoked gasps at first sight made it the first hit product that gave Apple its second wind. Thereafter, there has been no looking back. i-Pods,i-Tunes, i-Stores, i-Phones, i-Pads, and the yet unheralded i-Cloud have all followed in monotonous succession; each redefining rules of the marketplace, and creating new standards to such an extent that Apple blazes the trail, and the entire world simply plays catch-up. It seemed as if Apple was unstoppable – till, cruelly, cancer took hold of Jobs. He battled on for a few years, but all the medical knowledge of humankind could not extend the life of this great man.
I don't envy Tim Cook – while he has been Jobs' close aide and confidante for several years, and been the de facto day-to-day head at Apple for a long time,  stepping into Jobs' shoes won't be comfortable – he will feel like a pygmy wearing three-league boots. The world will keep comparing him with Jobs. Like the i-Phone's latest version (4S) released a couple of days back, even though it has almost all-new innards, looks no different from the earlier version. Early reports suggest that Apple loyalists seem to be disappointed – quite possibly because it was the first product in more than a decade to be launched without Jobs' involvement, either at the launch or in its making.
Steve Jobs, RiP.

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