Oct 8th 2011
The astonishing career of the world’s most revered chief executive
IT WAS always going to be a hard act to follow. On October 4th Apple staged a press conference to launch its latest iPhone and other gadgets. Tim Cook, the computing giant’s new chief executive, and his colleagues did a perfectly competent job of presenting its latest wares. But it was inevitable that comparisons would be drawn between Mr Cook’s understated approach on stage and that of Steve Jobs, his predecessor, whose sense of showmanship had turned so many Apple product launches into quasi-religious experiences. The news the following day that Mr Jobs had finally died following a long battle with cancer turned the feeling of disappointment into one of deep sadness.
Many technologists have been hailed as visionaries. If anyone deserves that title it was Mr Jobs. Back in the 1970s, the notion that computers might soon become ubiquitous seemed fanciful. In those days of green-on-black displays, when floppy discs were still floppy, he was among the first to appreciate the potential that lay in the idea of selling computers to ordinary people. More recently, under his guidance, Apple went from being a company on the brink of bankruptcy to a firm that has reshaped entire industries and brought rivals to their knees. Rarely in corporate history has a transformation been so swift. Along the way Mr Jobs also co-founded Pixar, an animation company, and became Disney’s biggest shareholder.
Few corporate leaders in modern times have been as dominant—or, at times, as dictatorial—as Mr Jobs. His success was the result of his unusual combination of technical smarts, strategic vision, flair for design and sheer force of character. But it was also because in an industry dominated by engineers and marketing people who often seem to come from different planets, he had a different and much broader perspective. Mr Jobs had an unusual knack for looking at technology from the outside, as a user, not just from the inside, as an engineer—something he attributed to the experiences of his wayward youth.
An adopted child, Mr Jobs caught the computing bug while growing up in Silicon Valley. As a teenager in the late 1960s he cold-called his idol, Bill Hewlett, and talked his way into a summer job at Hewlett-Packard (HP), where he met Steve Wozniak (pictured above with Mr Jobs). But it was only after dropping out of college, travelling to India, becoming a Buddhist and experimenting with psychedelic drugs that Mr Jobs returned to California to co-found Apple with Mr Wozniak, in his parents’ garage, on April Fools’ Day 1976. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences,” he once said. “So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.” His great rival, Bill Gates, he suggested, would be “a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”
Dropping out of his college course and attending calligraphy classes instead had, for example, given Mr Jobs an apparently useless love of typography. But support for a variety of fonts was to prove a key feature of the Macintosh, the pioneering mouse-driven, graphical computer that Apple launched in 1984. With its windows, icons and menus, it was sold as “the computer for the rest of us”. Mr Jobs expected to sell “zillions” of his new machines. But the Mac was not the swift, mass-market success that he had hoped for, and Mr Jobs was ousted from Apple by its board in 1985. Deprived of hallucinogenic drugs though he might have been, Mr Gates emerged as the undisputed champion of the personal-computer era. Most of the world adopted Microsoft-compatible PCs. The Mac became a niche product, much loved by graphic designers, artists and musicians.
Yet this apparently disastrous turn of events proved to be a blessing: “the best thing that could have ever happened to me”, Mr Jobs later called it. He co-founded a new firm, Pixar, which specialised in computer graphics. It eventually went on to produce a string of hugely successful movies, including “Toy Story” and “Cars”. Mr Jobs also established NeXT, another computer-maker, which produced sophisticated workstations. Its products were admired for their elegant software, but the company struggled to make money and changed direction repeatedly.
Mr Jobs’s remarkable second act began in 1996 when Apple, having lost its way, acquired NeXT, and Mr Jobs returned to put its software at the heart of a new range of Apple products. And the rest is history: Apple launched the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, and (briefly, in August) became the world’s most valuable listed company. “I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple,” Mr Jobs said in 2005. When his failing health forced him to step down as Apple’s boss in August, he was hailed by some as the greatest chief executive in history.
In retrospect, Mr Jobs was a man ahead of his time during his first stint at Apple. Computing’s early years were dominated by technical types. But his emphasis on design and ease of use gave him the edge later on. Elegance, simplicity and an understanding of other fields came to matter in a world in which computers have become fashion items, carried by everyone, that can do almost anything. “Technology alone is not enough,” said Mr Jobs at the end of his speech introducing the iPad 2, in March 2011. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” It was an unusual statement for the head of a technology firm.
This interdisciplinary approach was backed up by an obsessive attention to detail. A carpenter making a fine chest of drawers will not use plywood on the back, even though nobody will see it, Mr Jobs said, and he applied the same approach to his products: “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” He insisted that the first Macintosh should have no cooling fan, so that it would be silent—putting user needs above engineering convenience. He called an engineer at Google one weekend with an urgent request: the colour of one letter of Google’s on-screen logo on the iPhone was not quite the right shade of yellow. He often wrote or rewrote the text of Apple’s advertisements himself.
His on-stage persona as a Zen-like mystic notwithstanding, Mr Jobs was an autocratic manager with a fierce temper. But his egomania was largely justified. He eschewed market researchers and focus groups, preferring to trust his own instincts when evaluating potential new products. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he said. His judgment proved uncannily accurate: by the end of his career the hits far outweighed the misses.
Although his authoritarian streak was well known, Mr Jobs was nevertheless good at attracting talent. Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design guru, Phil Schiller, its marketing leader, Scott Forstall, the head of its mobile-software operation and Mr Cook, the firm’s new chief executive and former chief operating officer, are all world-class managers. When he was asked how he chose members of his team, Mr Jobs said he always looked for bright and competent people. But more important, he added, was to find people who cared a great deal about precisely the same things that mattered to him.
The strength of Apple’s senior team is one reason that the firm’s share price barely flinched when news emerged last month that Mr Jobs was relinquishing his role as chief executive and becoming executive chairman. Another is that he left it in an extremely good position to take advantage of changes sweeping through the world of technology (see our special report this week). Under his guidance, Apple has developed not just amazing hardware, but also “cloud” based services such as its iTunes online music store and its new “iCloud” service, which allows people to store all sorts of content on Apple’s servers and access it on all sorts of devices.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Mr Jobs’s reign, however, was his ability to see beyond the business that rivals were fixated on. For years, Apple relied on its Macintosh computers to generate much of its revenue. But in 2007 the company dropped the word “Computer” from its name and Mr Jobs began telling anyone who would listen that the world was entering a post-PC era in which all sorts of computing devices would be used, some of which would eclipse the PC. Rivals pooh-poohed such pronouncements. But now many are struggling to adapt to a market in which smartphones and tablet computers have become wildly popular.
Oh, and one more thing
Another striking—and often underappreciated—aspect of Mr Jobs’s success was his ability to say no. At a company like Apple, thousands of ideas bubble up each year for new products and services that it could launch. The hardest thing for its leader is to decide which ones merit attention. Mr Jobs had an uncanny knack of winnowing out the wheat from the mountains of chaff.
It remains to be seen whether his disciples who are now running the show can make equally smart choices, and whether Apple will be able to prosper without its magician-in-chief at the helm. The lukewarm response to this week’s launch of its new iPhone 4S should give some cause for concern. Without Mr Jobs, Apple suddenly looked much more like just another technology firm, rather than a producer of magical products that excite the world. With Google and its allies chasing it in smartphones, and Amazon’s launch of a bold new tablet computer, Apple faces serious competition for the first time in the new markets it has created.
Thanks to Mr Jobs, the company has a great head start. But Mr Cook and his colleagues now need to show that some of the magic of the man who took Apple from the brink of disaster to world domination has rubbed off on them.
Correction: The engineer Steve Jobs called one weekend to correct the colour of a logo worked at Google, not Apple, as originally stated in this article. (It was Vic Gundotra: read his account of the incident.) This was in 2008, when Apple and Google were still allies rather than rivals.