Steve Jobs: visionary revolutionary

Lessons from the great American industrialist who proved that 'everybody' is always wrong. Photo: Apple

WASHINGTON, October 9, 2011 – Apple CEO and technology icon Steve Jobs passed away this past Wednesday, October 5, 2011 and was laid to rest in private ceremonies on October 8. While he did not invent computer science, broadband, wireless telephony, or recorded music and entertainment, he was the ultimate catalyst for these technologies, bringing them to the masses with elegant, stylish, and above all user-friendly devices and packaging that demystified the technology behind all this.

In a brief article acknowledging Jobs’ passing, the online newsletter of the prestigious IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) voiced a similar view, noting that Jobs left “a profound legacy. Through his penchant for design and perfection he enhanced the user’s experience with digital technology and changed the way people interact with each other. He especially inspired younger generations of innovators, designers and technical professionals.”

In so doing, Jobs also succeeded in removing the highly irritating and at times impenetrable barrier that had long existed between the high-priesthood of the technocracy and average technology users who simply wanted the devices they had purchased to work without the need for costly training, upgrades, and service visits. And under Jobs’ stewardship and leadership, that’s nearly always how Apple’s consumer-oriented products worked: no manual, no problem, and intuitively obvious as engineers used to like to say.

Steve Jobs RIP.

Screen shot of Steve Jobs’ obit on Apple website as of 10/06/2011.

In a more profound sense, however, Jobs was also an almost savage technology innovator. Not an engineer himself, he nonetheless had a phenomenal ability to intuitively connect computer engineering and computational activity and function to its counterparts in the real world.

In other words, he could see what computer eggheads were creating or refining and immediately grasp precisely how the public might benefit from such seemingly arcane technologies in ways their corporate owners or inventors could almost always never see.

Prologue: Apple I and beyond

Perhaps the best example of this was Jobs’ first groundbreaking product, the Macintosh computer. Jobs and his pal Steve Wozniak, of course, had already put together and marketed the Apple I kit computer for hobbyists. This then led them to create what was arguably the world’s first mass-market personal computer, the Apple II and its various iterations.

Jobs and Woz instinctively grasped the real essence of what could be done with existing off-the-shelf technologies, though it was ultimately up to Woz to come up with the guts of a functional and relatively inexpensive product. Jobs, on the other hand, always sensitive to the key imperative of what used to be called the man-machine interface, pushed the issues of accessibility and interface, even though he possessed no engineering degree himself.

Apple IIe.

Apple IIe, complete with a pair of 5 1/4 inch floppy drives. Remember them? Didn’t think so.

The dynamic duo’s sharp engineering and canny design and marketing efforts resulted in Apple’s eventual IPO, placing the new company squarely in a computer universe that still didn’t really see why the average Joe would “need” a personal computer. Jobs and Wozniak, though, had succeeded in creating what scientists would call a “disruptive technology.” No, they didn’t invent the modern computer or even revolutionize computer science at the time. But they did offer computing to the public in an attractive package that, while still a bit expensive, could still be fit into the budgets of computer nerds, hobbyists, and creative types who grasped how new programs being written for the device could help make their jobs or businesses more efficient. And this was completely new, especially for right-brainers.

Act I: Say “Hello” to Macintosh. And corporate exile.

Even newer and more disruptive was Jobs’ next “baby,” the Macintosh computer. Again, it was not exactly an original idea with Jobs. But Jobs had witnessed its prototype in action earlier during a trip to the legendary Xerox PARC skunk works. Xerox regarded that early computational device as a “toy,” and never deployed the technology until it was far too late. But Jobs took the idea and ran with it, resulting in the first Mac, famously introduced to the public via that immortal “1984” TV commercial that people continue to discuss even today.

Jobs, of course, was sent into exile from his own company after that, a victim in many ways of his own high-handedness. The Mac continued to be derided as a toy by its PC detractors who, of course, had other agendas. But even as Jobs departed the company, an additional and today fairly well forgotten Apple product was about to be unveiled. That product, when hooked up with a Mac, became at the time part of the most disruptive technology pairing of all: the Apple LaserWriter printer.

Macintosh introduction.

Steve introduces the “computer for the rest of us.”

Intermission: The “means of production” for the rest of us

Using MacWord, MacDraw, and a LaserWriter, writers and creative types could, with a bit of a budgetary stretch, become their own publishers by creating camera-ready copy without the need of intermediaries. It was an astounding development and one that, in a concrete way, changed this writer’s life forever.

Having left the brokerage business and having stumbled into the world of technical writing, I soon discovered that there were other lucrative science writing and technical manual jobs on the side that could add substantial additional freelance dollars to the family coffers. But such contracts already presupposed that the contractor had his or her own equipment and I did not, save for an already ancient Apple IIe computer and a clunky dot-matrix printer.

However, I was able to land one such contract—a technical manual for a prototype version of what we now see in information kiosks and ATM machines—by promising to purchase a Mac and use it’s output to interface with that company’s newly-purchased LaserWriter to create camera-ready copy the company could then crank out and assemble into user manuals. With the profits from this contract, I purchased my own LaserWriter—which cost more then than a souped up iMac would cost today—and I was, and still am, in business today.

Something profound had happened here. While Apple’s first personal computers and its later Macintosh were disruptive technologies in the sense that now the average non-computer degreed Joe, like me, could afford and use computational tools at home. The Mac-LaserWriter combo was viciously disruptive for writers, artists, and now, even publishers of data, information, and books. Effectively, the entire printing apparatus, once affordable only by millionaires and tycoons with enough capital to set up a plant, was affordable to people like you and me.

In other words, a central tenet of the Marxist complaint—namely, that only “the wealthy” could afford the “means of production”—while formerly true to a great extent, was now beginning to be shattered utterly by the availability of technologies that radically reduced the entrance fee for those same means of production. No genuine Marxist could ever have envisioned this development.

Jobs, and ultimately the rest of the PC-revolution’s leaders, Bill Gates included, had set in motion an irresistible force that could put the worker in charge of his or her own destiny and achieve at least a degree of independence from the industrial combine that Marx loved to demonize. Hardcore leftists today still don’t really grasp the earthshaking business and political implications of this.

After his banishment from Apple, Jobs launched another computer startup, aptly named NEXT, whose elegant black cube computers and lightning fast Unix-based operating system struggled to escape from a high-end niche. He also chose to dabble in a struggling, money-losing computer animation studio offshoot he bought outright from Lucasfilms. Bill Gates, who once needed the Mac for his little software company to survive, was now the King of Silicon Valley, even though he and his company, Microsoft, actually lived in Seattle. Steve Jobs was written off by many as a loser and a has-been.

Act II: The world minus Steve

Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the destruction went on, with or without Steve Jobs. Personal computers started communicating via “bulletin boards” like GE’s “GENIE” network, all of which ran on normal telephone lines. These evolved into more sophisticated interfaces like the early MOSAIC browser, which in turn required faster and faster connectivity.

One by one, tottering bastions of the old capitalist universe were forced to adapt or fail. Banking went online. So did stock trading, as online discount brokerages inexorably began to claim legions of clients from the old, overpriced full service brokerages, which didn’t really care about the small investor to begin with.

In entertainment, computer animation began to replace traditional 2-D animation, resulting in more lifelike cartoon features and, ultimately, in breathtaking special effects which had the side-effect of eliminating, in some cases, the need for extras to appear in large crowd and battle scenes. All of these cut some costs and jobs while creating new work for others now flocking into new fields.

Traditional media, both network TV and newsprint and magazine publications, began to lose their stranglehold on media dissemination as the speed and responsiveness of personal computers, traditional databases, and newly evolving broadband networks began to make reporting, information transfer, and even plain old gossip easier for John Q. Public.

In a brilliantly provocative keynote address to attendees at the Supercomputing 1998 (SC98) conference in Orlando, Florida, then-Disney Imagineering head Bran Ferren challenged his super-geek audience to come up with a meaningful analogy to describe the disruptive power of the still creaky but rapidly advancing Internet. After a little banter with the audience, Ferren declared that the best analogy he could think of was the discovery of fire by man.

Unlike most dull keynotes, Ferren’s initially startling comparison started a buzz among all the attendees that was vehemently argued and discussed throughout the conference and show. Was the Internet really the moral and actual equivalent of fire?

Well, we all, or at least most of us, now know that the Internet was and is fire. And it’s perhaps a great deal more, as Internet related technologies, including industrial production, power generation, and military technologies have also been ensnared in its World Wide Web.

Act III: The Second Coming of Steve and the rise of harmonic convergence

Just prior to the occasion of Ferren’s Florida keynote, and perhaps coincidentally, Steve Jobs had once again become an integral part of Apple Computer. Hard to imagine today, the company was then in the early phases of a classic corporate death spiral as developers and even product users bailed on a product that no longer seemed to have a future.

Jobs was brought back in to the company as a result of Apple’s utter inability to develop a viable replacement for its tottering Mac operating system. The company decided that Jobs’ brilliant but boutique-only NEXT OS, since it already existed, might have the ability to form the core of a new Mac OS. Little did they know what they were getting themselves into.

After engineering the Second coming of Steve, the first and biggest surprise of Apple’s management was that this new edition wasn’t your old Steve Jobs, hippie entrepreneur and corporate back office lightweight. Jobs wasn’t entirely transformed. He was still arrogant, still a perfectionist, still a visionary. But during his roughly 10-year exile, he’d learned a few things about how to run, or at least survive, a corporation. NEXT had continued to be a struggling venture, cutting edge technology aside. But Jobs’ capricious purchase of the Lucasfilms animation factory, now renamed Pixar, had, under his leadership, almost singlehandedly revived the entire field of Hollywood animation and had become enormously profitable, helping him to prepare for his real NEXT step.

Once back at Apple as a special “advisor” to then company CEO Gil Amelio, Jobs quickly accomplished a boardroom coup, much like the one that had deposed him earlier at Apple. Out were the fossilized technocrats who were killing the Apple franchise and who’d engineered the company’s disastrous flirtation with licensing Macintosh “clones.” In were Jobs, some new directors, including his Oracle pal, Larry Ellison, some key NEXT techno-heads, and, significantly, young British-born industrial designer Jon Ive who’d been about to leave Apple in frustration before Steve showed up and almost begged him to stay.

And things changed very quickly. Not paying much attention to legal niceties, Jobs first brutally squashed the company’s contracts with the makers of Macintosh clones, setting to work on resurrecting the Mac itself. Soon derided (again) as toys, just like the original 1984 model, Jobs’ new, Ive-designed, kandy-kolored gumdrop iMacs surprised computer industry naysayers and took the consumer world by storm. Sales were brisk, the MSM was enchanted, and a new generation embraced these colorful machines, improving Apple’s bottom line to the point where its death spiral was arrested and forward planning could begin once again. And that forward planning took on an unexpected new flavor, since most of it was probably in Steve Jobs’ head all along.

A current iMac model.

A current iMac model.

Remember the U.S. military’s amazing fakeout maneuver in the First Iraq War? You know, the one where the U.S. Marines faked a sea-based land invasion of Iraq while the Army secretly swept around the desert and engulfed Saddam’s forces from the rear where they never expected them? This is essentially what Jobs did next with Apple.

Even as Apple detractors clucked about how Apple could never beat the likes of Dell, HP, and Microsoft in personal computing and the business environment, Jobs had already moved beyond mere personal computing. Re-imagining the personal computing industry as an ecosystem, he quietly and secretly altered Apple’s mission in a radical new way.

The Mac would no longer be just another PC with a friendlier interface. It would be the company’s lead device, folding its users into an evolving, holistic, electronic ecosystem that involved information sharing, music, entertainment, and wireless telephony and communication into a personal lifestyle mall that each user could tailor into his or her own world by means of addtional, entirely new devices that no one had yet seen. Apple would now be, as Jobs stated in a slightly different context, “a friendly planet.”

Better yet: all this wondrous stuff would be sold not only online but in fashionable destination stores designed, created, and staffed by Apple and loyal Apple employees hosting seminars, repair clinics, and plenty of open computers for little kids—and future Apple consumers—to play with to their hearts’ content, just like Japanese computer boutiques had been doing for ages. When the stores were announced, Apple detractors, predictably, sneered. Existing computer stores were already beginning to fail as online retailing had begun to make its mark. So why should a Johnny-come-lately be able to do any better.

But we all know who got the last laugh. In the words of some computer gurus, Jobs, unlike many, easily and intuitively grasped that the future of computing and information science was that it would be—must be—“ubiquitous and nomadic.” In other words, people would be virtually, not actually “tethered” to a series of static and portable information devices—almost as small as credit cards and almost as light—that existed everywhere and could access wired or wireless networks anywhere. 

Jobs’ vision of computational “harmonic convergence” once again proved as violently disruptive to existing industry as the original Mac had ultimately been. As of today, Apple’s iPhone has nearly destroyed RIMM’s once-dominant Blackberry and obliterated the Palm. Ironically, the latter device was both purchased and destroyed by HP, which is itself on the ropes and currently without “earnings visibility” in Wall Street parlance.

The huge margins and profitability of iMacs and iPhones transformed Apple, at least a few minutes at a time, into a corporate behemoth whose capitalization now exceeds that of Exxon and one that’s driven Dell—whose CEO Michael Dell once condescendingly suggested that Apple be put out of its misery—to the periphery of the industry. And that goes for onetime cellphone giants Motorola, SONY, and especially Nokia whose dominance in that industry was once virtually unchallenged.

All though its features may eventually be entirely subsumed into the iPhone, the iPod—Apple’s answer to the bulkier SONY Walkman—turned the recorded music industry on its ear via the cleverly constructed iTunes store which brings the device into each listener’s personal music ecosystem, allowing users to design their own “albums” rather than buying a lot of songs they normally wouldn’t like in order to access the tunes that they love.

Both the iPhone and the iPod can also access “apps.” But these new apps, unlike the old ones (aka, “programs”) for personal computers, are generally cheap and easily downloadable on today’s faster networks.

Meanwhile, along came another disruptive Jobs-driven technology, the iPad. Up until Apple unveiled this sleek, elegant device, other companies had tried and failed to come up with portable computer tablets that would win mass-market favor. But again, Apple hit the right consumer note with the iPad, presenting it in an attractive, light, easy-to-use form factor that scored an immediate hit with consumers. 

And also attracted the attention of company CEOs, CIOs, and CFOs who’d long ignored Apple products. The iPad is generating increasing sales to corporate America, which favors the device as a field input computer, whether prospecting for oil and gas or recording vital stats in a hospital room. Corporate purchases of non-Microsoft Windows products? Who knew?

We could go on, but you get the picture. In his second coming, Jobs simply picked up at Apple where he’d left off, setting off disruptive virtual explosive devices, one by one, in business after business. Unlike the management that had sent him packing, Jobs didn’t try to compete head-on with the existing PC monopoly, already a proven loser’s game. He started with his remaining consumer base and just end-ran the PC world. As of late 2011, we know how this game plan turned out.

Act IV: Opus Posthumous; or, Steve’s spirit addresses the current economic malaise

The triumph, exile, and ultimate victory of Steve Jobs against the complacent heads of industry who laughed at him and dismissed him as a lightweight is already the stuff of legends, the latest of which we’ll no doubt be reading when his officially authorized biography comes out at the end of this month.

However, lost on many is the less obvious story about how each of Jobs’ innovations lowered the barrier to the “means of production” in industry after industry, making it possible for more and more individuals both here and around the world to employ Apple’s devices to strike off on their own. It’s a story of American exceptionalism and American individualism write large for new generations who’ve been carefully taught that both are a fraud and a lie.

And that’s perhaps the greatest irony of Steve Jobs’ life and career. He started out in life as a first decade Baby Boomer (born in 1955) nurtured in the socialistic peace, love, and pot-laden California dream environment that encompassed the 1960s and early 1970s. Who could have known that this scruffy college dropout would eventually become the greatest industrialist of the Information Age?

Though Jobs was a youthful hippie, he latched onto something he really loved to do early in his life; namely, to invent new, must-have products out of already-developed, sometimes esoteric technologies—products that would free individuals from the way things were and liberate them to dream bigger and better. While looking really nice in your living room or shirt pocket, too, drawing the envy and admiration of your friends.

It was Jobs’ passion for innovative products and technical excellence that set him apart from the pack, keeping him from being overwhelmed by the “tune in, turn on, drop out” mentality that stunted the intellectual growth and thwarted the ambitions of many of his fellow Boomers of that era, much as it has begun to do among the rising generations of today.

Somehow, Jobs—a liberal-to-left Democrat, a doctrinaire vegetarian, and a Buddhist convert—managed to overcome dogma. He understood that business was not an enemy of the working class but a friend to those willing spurn socialist dictates and unlock capitalism’s un-carefully guarded secret: namely that the driving force of American-style capitalism is its inherent power to destroy the useless and inefficient while building in its place products and technologies affordable and useful to more people rather than less, thus improving society as a whole.

Real American-style capitalism is Darwinian. Things that don’t work, don’t help people, and that don’t create money and jobs tend to get destroyed; while things that work, that are easily grasped, and that create jobs will replace the old and useless. If a company, its products, its services, or its people fail to serve or enhance the lives of the public at large, they will eventually go out of business. It’s very simple. Nobody wants their products. Thus, with only occasional exceptions, you can’t really expect to gain great wealth unless you make a product people want or need and do it much better than the other guys.

(The nuttiness and persistence of the ongoing Great Recession is negative proof of this. If we’d systematically but carefully allowed all this century’s bad corporate actors to actually fail, we’d probably be well on the road to recovery at this point.)

Jobs picked his product targets carefully. He saw where new technologies could disrupt the old and inefficient. In response, he created new technologies or technology innovations that end-ran and engulfed the old before anyone knew what was happening. Game, set, and match.

Epilogue: Zen capitalism, the final frontier

Steve didn’t often complain about life itself, at least insofar as we know. He never bellyached about industrialists, at least in public. He never whined about taxes. He never strutted the appearance of virtue before the camera. He never tried to tell the public what “everybody” thought. He knew that he could have fun, and in the process make a lot of money, simply by making the average human being’s life easier, more sociable, more enjoyable, and more efficient if that human being would purchase the Apple device or devices that would help achieve that end. He was never a saint. But he knew what would work.

Some of this, perhaps, could be traced back to his embrace of Buddhism. But it had probably been part of his character all along.

Nonetheless, as a result of his drive, determination, and sheer genius, Steve Jobs actually refined late-stage capitalism, creating an industrial model “for the rest of us” by enhancing countless live and careers with products that, like early microwave ovens, we all needed but didn’t know it. Apple today produces beautiful, functional products that work seamlessly together (and shortly in the upcoming “iCloud”) like no others. In the process, the company supports an ever-increasing number of employees both here and internationally, including those who run the company’s astoundingly profitable retail stores in the U.S. and around the world.

More amazing still, Apple is accomplishing all of this with devices that aren’t inexpensive, selling them like hotcakes even in an economic environment that resembles the Great Depression a little more every day. The company today is the embodiment of that famous catch phrase from “Field of Dreams”: build it, and they will come.

Persistently negative people never succeed in accomplishing anything. Only those with joy, energy, and a positive determination to succeed and prosper ever really make a difference. Foul-mouthed, hate-filled placard holders do not. Steve didn’t waste time trash-talking his opponents. He simply ignored them, went around them, and did things better. There’s a profound lesson in this for today’s politicians, bankers, and industrialists as well as the well-funded Know-Nothings whose solution to tough times is to put business out of business.

Referencing Jobs’ accomplishments, stature, and contribution to society, current IEEE President Moshe Kam, in the same newsletter cited above, got the narrative about right:

“Steve Jobs was an inspiring inventor and entrepreneur, toward whom technical professionals worldwide, as well as consumers and the general public, felt unusual admiration and affinity. He was as exceptional, original and influential as the most revered figures in the history of innovation, including legendary individuals like Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, David Sarnoff, Hewlett and Packard, Walt Disney and Henry Ford. He will be sorely missed.”


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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