For those of us who haven’t consumed copious amounts of Apple-flavoured Kool-Aid, the the posthumous over-the-top comparisons of Steve Jobs to Edison, Einstein, Da Vinci, etc., have been more than a little hard to take.
Fortunately, sanity is starting to return to the conversation.
Malcolm Gladwell, largely riffing off the new biography by Walter Isaacson, wrote an interesting piece for the New Yorker that might (finally) lead people to question the great man theory that has developed around the Apple co-founder.
Gladwell argues that rather than being a great innovator, Jobs was more of a tweaker, someone who took others’ ideas and refined them through the force of his ruthless perfectionism and vision. Apple wasn’t the first to produce a personal computer, MP3 player or smartphone. Rather, Apple (read Jobs) tweaked those products and tied them to a closed universe of related software and devices to create a seamless, clean design experience for the end user. Far from minimizing this achievement, however, Gladwell argues that such tweakers are crucial to any era of great technological transformation. He points to similar figures in Britain’s industrial revolution who enhanced other people’s inventions.
I would also argue that by showing the average person the useful and friendly side of technology, Jobs also brought a sense of order to a messy era of change wrought by the electronic age. In that sense, Jobs was the (semi-benign) great tech dictator. Tales of his tantrums, narcissism, petulance, rudeness and vindictiveness, of his poor treatment of employees, and of him stealing others’ ideas, as well as his infamous perfectionism and the relatively closed nature of Apple’s platforms (compared to other tech companies), support this reading of him. Indeed, the collective, near-global mourning after his death bear many hallmarks of a cult of personality.
(Why artists and creative types love Apple so much is more of a puzzle than explaining the appeal of Apple’s products to the average user, given artists’ free-thinking ways. It may have something to do with Jobs having simplified technology to the point where they can simply create with it in a worry-free way.)
But to say that Jobs singularly towered over the computer age is to minimize the achievements and innovations of other contributors that come readily to mind, including Intel, Google, Research in Motion, Xerox, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft (whose co-founder, Bill Gates, Jobs considered to be “unimaginative,” despite Jobs’ own copycat ways). Many others have also fundamentally transformed how we do various everyday tasks in the information age, and Jobs refinements and tweaks came in reaction to what was going on around him, and us. (He also wasn’t the only tweaker out there.)
To my mind, Jobs greatest talent was in marketing. Part of his genius lay in his ability to convince people that his products solved problems they didn’t even know they had, and that they were worth double or triple the cost of those made by his competitors. He also seemed to have had the kind of forceful personality that kept Apple on a path aligned with his vision. (It will be interesting to see if the company can stay on that path, or whether in his absence it becomes the next Sony.)
So there’s no question there was an aura of greatness surrounding Steve Jobs. But was he on the same level as Edison, Einstein or others whose insights and innovations truly and almost singlehandedly revolutionalized our world? I think that’s a bit of a stretch.