by Bob Lewis

Why Steve Jobs Mattered

Oct 12, 20114 mins
Consumer ElectronicsInnovationIT Leadership

The first popular personal computer? Pixar? Huge profits for Apple and its shareholders? These are sideshows. Steve Jobs' contributions were far more important than any of these.

“I’m good, but I’m no Frankie Yankovic.”

– Weird Al Yankovic, when asked if he and polka king Frankie Yankovic were related, and wouldn’t this make a great t-shirt?


Can you stand one more Steve Jobs retrospective?

I’m not sure I can either. But as so much of what I’ve read seems to have missed, not just the point, but both of the points (there are two) … well, what the heck. And so, let’s try to answer the question, why did Steve Jobs matter?

What Answer #1 isn’t: He started it all. He didn’t. Not even he and Steve Wozniac together get the credit.

Jobs and Wozniac were part of a thriving community of people fascinated by the potential for personal computers. They built, not the first PC, but the first commercial PC … the first that could do something useful for mere mortals right out of the box.

Why this doesn’t matter all that much is that, had they not done so, someone else would have before much more time had passed. They got there first, and deserve credit for it. But it isn’t why Steve Jobs matters.

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What Answer #1 is: He made the user interface important. As you have to know, Jobs had nothing to do with the invention of the graphical user interface. Douglas Engelbart did most of that work, with a team at Xerox PARC labs finishing things up.

But Engelbart lacked influence, and Xerox lacked interest. Jobs saw the result and had the key insight: The user interface, all by itself, mattered, independent of the specific use to which anyone put it. This led to the Macintosh, which led to Windows, making the graphical user interface ubiquitous.

The notion that making computers easy for humans to figure out should be the centerpiece of the design effort was uniquely his.

Or, if you’re more cynical, Steve Jobs was partially responsible for the ongoing dumbing down of the American public. The downside of an immensely friendly user interface is that the user has less learning … and thinking … to do.

Think of the GUI as the automatic transmission of computing, encouraging more drivers, including worse drivers, to share the road.

What Answer #2 isn’t: Solving hard problems. Don’t get me wrong – smartphones and tablets matter, and while Jobs no more invented these than he invented the PC, without him they’d be a whole lot less interesting and transformational. But nothing about them was hard.

Apple has nothing that corresponds to the old Bell Labs or IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Apple won’t invent the next transistor or scanning tunneling electron microscope, nor will it discover anything as consequential as the cosmic background radiation.

Heck, iOS doesn’t even provide e-inking as an operating-system-level service, let alone something as important, relevant, and difficult as handwriting recognition.

Apple takes on the easy problems. This isn’t an indictment. Figuring out new and interesting things you can do with what has already been solved is tremendously useful. It shouldn’t be confused with doing something hard, though.

What Answer #2 is: Providing a leadership model lots of companies should follow. From what we know, Jobs didn’t lead as CEOs should lead. He was an autocratic micromanager, unable to delegate and deeply involved in the details of product design. Let’s hope, for Hewlett Packard’s sake, that Meg Whitman doesn’t follow suit.

But, and these are crucial, Steve Jobs focused on potential, and he insisted on excellence.

Nothing about the iPod, iTunes store, iPhone, or iPad was safe. Jobs focused on upside potential, not downside risk. Like the great generals in history he preferred offense to defense.

As for excellence, he insisted on it in the technical as well as general meaning of the word. Technically, “excellence” refers to the presence of desirable features people want to buy, as opposed to “quality,” which refers to the absence of defects … a characteristic Jobs didn’t particularly care about.

Under Steve Jobs, every Apple product had to be so desirable that its customers were willing to pay premium prices for its designs while forgiving it for serious lapses in quality.

So pay attention, because this is why Steve Jobs mattered most: He had no obvious interest in “maximizing shareholder value” or increasing Apple’s profits. He was far from the highest-paid CEO in America and never seemed to worry about that, either.

Along with Bill Gates and almost nobody else at the helm of a corporate behemoth, he personally loved his company’s products.

Like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs demonstrated that if a company’s CEO focuses on building products people want to buy, the rest will happen.

Imagine if General Motors had been run like that.