Let a Thousand Steves Bloom

Photo I loved the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. It provides an even-keeled, unblinking account of a very complicated man. After reading this book, that’s the most concise word I can think of for Jobs: complicated. How else can anyone account for what he accomplished in his life?

People, from the so-called “Apple faithful”, to Wall Street analysts, to my own mom, wonder whether Apple will prosper in a post-Jobs era. They fear that the world will never see his like again. Hell, I worried about that myself.

The more I think about it, the more laughable that fear becomes. Never mind Apple, although I am certain they’ll be just fine for generations to come. We all gave Steve too little credit. It turns out that we all learned exactly what it takes to produce mind-blowing products, and we are surrounded by them.

Consider Steve’s first innovation: the original Macintosh. He brought an artist’s eye and laser-like focus to bear on a computer engineering problem for the first time. He taught us that technology has to be wrestled like an alligator before it will yield something truly human and usable. That you have to be unrelenting to convince some people to follow your lead. That if you get together a group of “A people” and point them at a common goal, they can produce something great.

Steve invented startup culture. After the Mac, after the stories got out, entrepreneurs everywhere took his lessons to heart, and have structured their businesses similarly. You can argue with the verbal abuse and 24×7 development cycles (and I certainly would), but you can’t argue with the success: from the 1990s on, we’ve seen startup after startup tread Steve’s path. Not all of them produce “insanely great” products. But like the pace of human invention in general, we’ve seen an exponential increase in the number of high-quality, well-loved products that have attempted to make a dent in the universe.

The Nest Thermostat. Quora. Delicious Library. Panic Software.

(No coincidence that many of them are closely tied to Apple; they had a front-row view of happened in Cupertino). I guess what they have in common is a strong core vision of what the product should be, and a driving ambition to make it real. I believe Steve is largely responsible for showing us how that’s done.

Apple, through Steve Jobs, was known as a secretive company. But they had no trouble sharing their secret sauce; it’s evident in the stories we’ve heard of Apple, and it’s plain as day in Isaacson’s book. They took brilliant engineers and married their work with the liberal arts — technology and humanity together in one product. And it’s true: Apple’s competitors have simply not taken those lessons to heart. Their products are cold, unfinished, uncaring pieces of garbage. Until RIM, Samsung, Google and others come alive to what Steve has said very clearly, they’ll continue to be irrelevant. Microsoft, amazingly enough, seems to the be only one stirring in this department.

But Steve showed us that anyone can live these values. From giant corporations to talented indies, we’re seeing a thousand Steves bloom. So it’s fair to say that while Apple will be his best-known legacy, he changed us all, and we carry a bit of his ethos within us as we create our next insanely great thing.

I’ll finish with my favourite line from the book, and oh yes, it is so very germane to this discussion. Upon Steve’s return to Apple in 1997, he confronted the staff, telling them what Apple’s problem was:

“Okay, tell me what’s wrong with this place,” he said. There were some murmurings, but Jobs cut them off. “It’s the products!” he answered. “So what’s wrong with the products?” Again there were a few attempts at an answer, until Jobs broke in to hand down the correct answer. “The products suck!” he shouted. “There’s no sex in them anymore!”

Now get back to work, and don’t leave out the sex.