On the Death of Steve Jobs: A Visionary (Sort of) for Our Times

Why I’ve Admired Steve Jobs Since 1980

When Steve Jobs passed away last week, it felt almost (but not quite) like a death in the family. It’s a little hard to explain why. Sure, I’ve been using Apple products since around 1980 (I can’t remember the exact year my dad bought us an Apple II+). But I’ve been using Microsoft products for almost as long, and I doubt I’ll feel the same about Bill Gates’ death (I won’t feel *happy* either). And sure, Jobs was a kind of a rock star, but I’ve always been immune to that sort of charisma. And sure, he grew up, like me in a ranch-style house in a middle class neighborhood in Mountain View (or, in Jobs’ case, an unincorporated part of Santa Clara County that was, for all intents and purposes, Mountain View), but so did a lot of other people with whom I share no connection.

Naturally, I tried to console myself by reading other people’s reactions to Jobs’ death, particularly in Twitter feeds. There were a few dominant themes: that he was an innovator, that he was a rebel, that he just designed good products–and a few to the effect that he was overrated. But I think the dominant theme was that he was a “visionary.”

What Is a Visionary?

I was initially skeptical of these lauds, dismissing them as the product of grief-stricken fanboys and fangirls. I didn’t like applying the term “visionary” to Jobs because, to me, the term is laden with a moral dimension, and Jobs’ genius didn’t lay in morality. It lay in business, which in some ways makes him all the more remarkable. For a guy who didn’t want to tell you how to live your life (as a moralist would), who didn’t do anything heroic, who didn’t lead a social or religious movement, who wasn’t known for his philanthropy–who was, in the end, just an businessman–he touched a lot of people profoundly. At his death, we realized that he wasn’t just a kind of rock-star businessman. He was something more.

(Here’s a disturbing thought: what if we regard Jobs as a visionary because he’s the closest thing we’ve had to a real visionary for a long time.)

If you strip out my objection about morality, the term “visionary” fits Jobs surprisingly well. “Visionary” can have three basic meanings. First, it can mean a kind of prophet, who sees the future by means of visions, often as a warning. Second, it can mean one who has a vision of another, better or perfect reality. Third, it can mean one who simply sees more than most people, seeing the “big picture.”

He wasn’t a prophet, but, like a prophet, he could see almost see the future. He couldn’t see very far into the future, and he couldn’t tell you the exact date such-and-such an event would happen. And his vision was limited to a certain kind of consumer electronics. But he could see what was just around the corner with certain forms of consumer electronics–not merely what might happen, but what was absolutely going to happen. He also had the fervor of prophet, the ability to convert others to his cause. And, like a lot of prophets, he became an instrument in the prophecy’s fulfillment.

Although Jobs’ vision didn’t necessarily make the world a “better” place in the moral sense of the word, it did make it “better” in a broader sense of the word. Thanks to Jobs, computers, MP3 players and portable computers are now commonplace and within reach of most consumers of the wealthy part of the world. OK, when you put it like that, it doesn’t sound that heroic (no one’s life was saved), but taken on the whole, it was a huge achievement.

Finally, Jobs certainly had a better view of the big picture than most people. He saw not just the technology, but he understood how the ordinary consumer would respond to it, what the consumer wanted. He also understood that the technology was just the beginning. It existed in an ecosystem, which sometimes (as in the case of the iPod) had to be constructed almost from scratch. It required making deals, and it required raising capital. It also required a kind of vibe to connect with the ordinary consumer. Jobs’ attention to industrial design and marketing is legendary. The best example of his “big picture” thinking might be Jobs’ “digital hub” concept, in which the personal computer would become a kind of centerpiece to ordinary consumer activities, such as photography, music and television.

Xerox PARC: A Vision

Perhaps the most often-told story about Jobs is his tour of Xerox PARC in 1979. To me, it’s one of three foundational myths of Silicon Valley (the other two being Shockley and the Traitorous Eight and “Gary Went Flying”). You probably know the story, which has to do with the development of the first Macintosh computer. Several companies in Silicon Valley were working on Graphic User Interfaces (“GUI”), which we take for granted now. Apple was, too (for both its “Lisa” project and for the Macintosh project). Nobody but Xerox PARC was having much success. Jobs gave Xerox a wad of very valuable Apple stock in exchange for a detailed tour of certain of Xerox PARC’s technologies. One of the things he saw was the Alto, a GUI computer with a mouse. (Here’s a picture of the Alto that I took at the Computer History Museum last summer.)

Honestly, we’re not quite sure what Apple’s GUI looked like at the time, but it’s clear that the Alto’s GUI was lightyears better than what Apple was developing. It’s clear also that Jobs saw something at Xerox PARC that neither he nor his team at Apple had thought of before. After examining the Alto for a while, and in particular the way the mouse interacted with the GUI, Jobs reportedly went a little nuts. He started pacing up and down, exclaiming, “Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is revolutionary!”

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s re-telling of the story, one of the first things Jobs did after the Xerox PARC visit was meet with an industrial designer he knew. Jobs told the designer to design a mouse. But he did not want the same mouse that Xerox PARC had shown Jobs. No, that mouse was expensive to make, got dirty, broke easily and was a pain to clean and maintain. This mouse, Jobs insisted, had to be cheap to make, not get dirty, be easy to clean and resilient. In other words, Jobs wanted a mouse that consumers could afford and use. It was the designer, a guy named Bill Hovey, who figured out how to do it. He threw out Xerox PARC’s elaborate ball bearing casing and let the ball roll freely under the mouse, using two little rollers to measure the X and Y axes.

What vision did Jobs have at Xerox PARC? Why did he go nuts? Yes, he could be exuberant, but his behavior at PARC was something else. He didn’t see merely a business opportunity (though he certainly saw that). He didn’t simply see the future of computing (though that was plain for anyone to see). What he saw, in the Alto, was the inverse of what Xerox saw:

  • Xerox:  New Technology = Very Expensive = Elite Technology
  • Jobs: New Technology = Easy to Use = Consumer Technology

It was counterintuitive at the time, but Jobs understood at that moment a new purpose for technology, and a new measuring stick for the success of technology. From then on, consumers would be the measure of all things technological. It amounted to reversing the tides, but over time, Jobs would manage it.

He Invented Nothing and Everything

In some respects, Jobs’ detractors are correct. He didn’t invent the Apple personal computer–Steve Wozniak did–and he didn’t invent the Apple mouse–Bill Hovey did. He also didn’t invent the MP3 player (I’m not sure who did), or the smart phone, or the tablet computer. No, all he did was make all of these things possible. He raised the money, he made the deals, he told the engineers what the specs had to be, he got the product to market, and got people to buy it. He was a like a secret sauce of technology success.

What people forget about the whole Macintosh-mouse-GUI affair is that, Ridley Scott’s iconic Super Bowl advertisement notwithstanding, the Mac was originally a bit of a flop. The GUI took up more processing power than Job had given it. Also, there was hardly any software built for it, especially business software. Thanks to these problems, Apple for a long time had a reputation of creating pretty but underpowered devices that had no business being in the workplace, which stopped being fair about ten years ago. Jobs fixed the problem, but the damage was done. What actually made the Mac a success (1) the rise of desktop publishing, and (2) the publication of VisiCalc, which gave business a reason to buy Macs.

When Jobs got a second chance to do something great at Apple, he didn’t make these mistakes again. Before Apple introduced the iMac in 1998, he made sure, among other things, that Microsoft would continue to publish business software for it (and help fund it!). Before he committed to the iPod, he made sure he could supply the iPod with legal music (having previously cut his teeth on Pixar’s negotiations with Disney). Before the iPad was released, there were already hundreds of applications for it.

People must have thought Jobs was a control-freak. Certainly, lots of talented people could not stand to work for or with him. I don’t think he was a control freak. It’s just that he had this vision of what a product should be, and that his vision was so strong, that he wouldn’t accept any deviation from it. When he got angry during the development of the iPod that it took three clicks to get to a song, it must have been frustrating to the engineers and designers. Isn’t three clicks good enough? The problem is that Jobs knew that it wasn’t. He knew consumers wouldn’t stand for three clicks. And he was right. He must have been infuriating.

Technology Is Just the Beginning

My father is an engineer, and I inherited an engineer’s distrust of anything smacking of marketing or product design. The “guts” were the most important part of any technology product. We just gravitate to Woz instead of Jobs. Yet, for all our praise of Steve Jobs, we still underestimate the importance of people like Steve Jobs (if not Jobs himself). Technology is nice, but what good is it if no one uses it or just the plaything of an elite?

It used to be that a technocrati priesthood would go the mountain of technology and return with mysteries for the masses. Jobs brought the mountain to the the masses. Technology products now adapt to consumers, not the other way around. Technology augments the way we live our lives; we no longer adapt our lives to suit technology. If Jobs has a legacy, there it is.

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Rick and Tara are experienced lawyers who have set out to serve clients in a new way. Rick's roots reach back to his Silicon Valley home, where he first developed his litigation-oriented practice before moving to Nashville in 2004. Tara got her start in the music publishing business in Nashville in 1998 and has used that experience to form the basis of her transactional law practice since graduating from law school in 2004.
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