Steve Jobs would have been bemused by the many epithets assigned to him in the wake of his death on 5 October 2011.
He was described variously an inventor, digital entrepreneur and marketer. From humble origins in 1976, he – more than anyone else – propelled Apple, Inc. into one of the world’s best known and most admired consumer electronics companies. That was achieved through a relentless pursuit of innovation, technical perfection and high emphasis on design aesthetics. He inspired a cult-like following for himself and Apple products, many of which bore his signature style.
All very true — but also very passé. The minimalist Jobs would have settled for just four words: he changed the world.
And change he did — in many ways, some already known, the rest still unfolding. He used to say that Apple sat “at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology.” Similarly, for 35 years, Steven Paul Jobs stood like a colossus at the global intersection of computers, consumer electronics, popular culture and fine design. There were other giants in each realm, but none that straddled and cross-fertilised as much.
He was listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 338 US patents or patent applications. Impressive — but nowhere near the top among the most prolific inventors. Thomas Edison held over a thousand. Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, one of Jobs’ heroes, had 535.
The legacy of Steve Jobs was not in piling up patents or turning them into dollars. TIME magazine got it right when they called him technology’s great reinventor. In a world sinking under the weight of patents — many for marginal ideas or devices — we badly need reinventors to shake up entire industries. Market and social transformation requires more than fancy gadgets and clever marketing. It needs systemic thinking, the ability to grasp the Bigger Picture – and then reconfigure it. Jobs had this talent.
He paid attention to details too – obsessively so! A fine balance between functionality and design elegance characterised their products. In pursuit of this, he may have been influenced by the thinking of another American design maestro: Richard Buckminster Fuller. The American engineer and systems theorist once said: “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
All his life, Jobs looked for ways to enhance humans’ interactions with computers and electronics. For example, early developers of Personal Computers (PCs) didn’t see anything wrong with all interfaces being heavily text dependent. In 1979, while visiting Xerox’s PARC research lab in Palo Alto, California, Jobs saw an experimental computer with a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI) – one that allows users to interact with electronic devices through images rather than text commands. As he later said, “Within 10 minutes… it was clear to me that all computers would work this way someday.”
Xerox was the first to market a PC with GUI in 1981, but Apple really exploited the concept. The Apple Lisa (1983) and Apple Macintosh 128K (1984) both used menu bars and window controls. All others followed.
Needs vs. Wants
By going beyond functionality and creating elaborate — and more expensive — products, Jobs also distorted our perceptions of ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Consider the mobile phone. A decade ago, Nokia looked set to dominate the low and middle range mobile handsets, while BlackBerry had cornered the emerging smartphone market.
The iPhone, introduced in 2007, challenged that. It not only became a toy among the more affluent, but raised aspirations for tens of millions of mobile phone users around the world. Other smartphones can serve our communication needs just as well; however, they no longer satisfy our wants. Someday, it seems, we all want to brandish an iPhone…
Such unapologetic pandering to consumerism got Apple ahead of the pack. The company apparently didn’t invest in market research; instead it relied on its maverick CEO’s instincts on what consumers truly wanted.
How did Jobs get things right most of the time? Which roots of his complex personality – Californian, hippie, Zen or geeky — contributed the most? In what proportion did the Western and Eastern influences shape his thinking? We can only speculate.
For over a decade, Apple and Jobs have virtually owned the letter ‘i’ in the Roman alphabet. It started with the iMac (1998) and continued with the iPod (2001), iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010).
Officially, the ‘i’ stood for “Internet”. To many, it also represented the product’s focus as a personal device — ‘i’ for “individual”. The ‘i’ can also stand for innovative, iconoclastic and ‘insanely great’, a favourite phrase of Jobs’ to describe his products. And, we might add: impatient, impetuous and irreverent. All attributes that made Jobs a culture-changing force, and a fine example of American soft power in action.
However idiosyncratic Steve Jobs was, his carefully orchestrated public appearances were a lot more than mere acts of corporate one-upmanship. They ultimately defied entire systems of thinking and practice: unilateral declarations of independence (UDI) from the status quo.
Only the most gifted – and gutsy — mavericks can get away with that in an increasingly discerning global marketplace. Many tributes have acknowledged that Jobs was a maverick, which he turned into a core value at Apple. As he said, “Those who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world, are the ones that do!”
That was the basis of an advertising slogan – ‘Think Different’ – that boosted the sagging image of Apple in 1997. Jobs had just returned to the company after spending 11 years in the tech ‘wilderness’, and wanted to send a strong message. His PR team couldn’t have picked a better theme.
The Crazy Ones
The campaign’s television component comprised a commercial titled “The Crazy Ones” which paid tribute to mavericks through history. The entirely black-and-white creation featured 17 iconic personalities – among them Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Also included, interestingly, were singers Bob Dylan and John Lennon, artist Pablo Picasso, boxer Muhammad Ali and the muppets inventor Jim Henson.
The voiceover of the shorter, 30-second version said: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Jobs narrated the first commercial which was never aired. Instead, what went public was the version voiced by actor Richard Dreyfuss. Those 30 seconds – and a longer, 60 second variation – captured the very essence of Apple. It did not show a single tech product. There was no need.
Over a dozen years later what does all this mean to us in Asia?
We might admire – even revere – mavericks like Steve Jobs from afar, but few Asians have any idea where mavericks come from, or how best to deal with them. Our conformist and hierarchical societies don’t nurture mavericks. Our cultures tend to suppress odd-balls and iconoclasts. That’s probably why we don’t have enough of our own Steve Jobses, Richard Bransons and Anita Roddicks.
Oh sure, we Asians are smarter than most other nationals in science, maths and engineering. We can master all things geeky in next to no time. And thanks largely to China, India and Japan, Asia’s share of global research, knowledge creation and patents is steadily increasing. Asians have world class laboratories and high tech corporations churning a dazzling gadgets and gizmos that now compete with the finest brands of the West.
Yes, we excel in the collective form — just like honey bees — and that is no mean accomplishment. But how many Asian tech mavericks can we think of in everyday technology? Does anyone know – or care – who heads the Samsung Corporation in Korea, the closest rival to Apple in smartphones? Or do we know the Japanese inventor of the Sony Walkman?
There are reasons for this. Information technology and electronics industries are accelerated by impatient consumer demands as never before. Armies of wizards must work 24/7 like elves to keep up.
Nevertheless, there is still a place for lone inventors tinkering in a backyard and maverick scientists swimming against the currents of conventional wisdom. The crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently.
Mark Twin said: “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds”. The question is: do we Asians hush down our home-grown cranks even before they have a sporting chance? Are we culturally too biased against individualism that propels useful – and potentially transformative — mavericks?
As a ‘maverick spotter’ and cheerleader for all types of innovation, I often worry that we do. I have come across bright young men and women who were ridiculed in the classroom (‘freaks!’) or scorned at home (‘losers!’) for not wanting to be doctors, engineers or lawyers.
Or think of how our societies treat the left-handers among us. Now you know why mavericks don’t stand a chance…
Toy Maker – or Magician?
While Apple’s marketing campaigns celebrated mavericks, the company itself was run in a very businesslike manner with no touchy-feely sentimentalities. In fact, Apple was – and still is — every bit as proprietary as Microsoft, but perhaps a bit cleverer at disguising it.
It made no concessions to popular movements advocating ‘software freedom’ and open source software. Apple staff was sworn to secrecy and the company’s public image was tightly controlled. In recent months, there have been media reports about appalling working conditions in factories in southern China manufacturing Apple products. Apple’s App Store has been accused of censoring content: leading industry critics have called for clearer, more transparent guidelines on what is allowed.
Meanwhile, despite his personal worth estimated to exceed USD 8 billion, Jobs was not particularly philanthropic. At least not publicly.
Yet somehow, Apple’s adoring fans – many liberals among them – have reconciled with these and other contradictions. Evidently, Bill Gates was held to a stricter standard…
But before you dismiss Steve Jobs as a cold-hearted genius who was simply out to reshape the world, consider the other half of his illustrious legacy: Pixar Animation Studios.
The movie company, started by George Lucas in 1979 and acquired by Jobs in 1986, has produced a total of 12 animated feature films. To date, it has won 26 Academy Awards among many other accolades, and grossed USD 6.3 billion at the box office.
Pixar is further evidence that Jobs knew we are all ruled primarily by our hearts than brains. Movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo tugged at our hearts in ways that only Walt Disney’s army of illustrators had succeeded before. This time around, computers were generating all the images. In the two decades he owned Pixar, Jobs firmly bridged Silicon Valley with Hollywood.
It’s no coincidence that Toy Story and its sequels are among the most popular films made entirely with computer generated images, or CGI. Tapping into our emotions deeper than we understand, they make the Global Family laugh and cry.
But toys have a deeper meaning as well. Jobs knew we are all children at heart. By giving us fancy new toys at regular intervals, he kept us contented even as he made Apple the richest tech corporation in the world.
Apple and Steve Jobs were not really making computers or consumer electronics. It manufactured personalised dreams for seven billion human beings. We readily suspended our disbelief for Pixar movies – and for many Apple products.
Now that our planet’s favourite Pied Piper has moved on, whose mesmerising tune are we going to follow — and to where?
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been profiling triumphs and struggles of Lankan inventors for two decades, and written widely on policy and institutional reforms needed for nurturing a culture of innovation. During 2009-2010, he hosted a weekly TV show on innovation, and is a trustee of the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust that seeks to promote innovation in Sri Lanka. He blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com