Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Remarkable Life and Career of Steve Jobs

This morning I woke to the news that Steve Jobs had died. Such an important figure in the history of computing and entertainment, his story is rich in twists and turns, ups and downs, business success and human drama. Jobs was indeed a pioneer worthy of the attention he is now receiving.

The pioneer years

Steve Jobs was one of the truly great business leaders of this or any other era. Co-founding Apple Computer Inc. in 1976 with engineering buddy Steve Wozniak, 'the two Steve's' were central figures in the home computer revolution (truly a revolution) that started in the 1980s and accelerated throughout the 1990s. The Apple II, designed, developed and largely programmed by Wozniak (there is something very romantic in my mind about the idea of one man in a garage literally building a new computer from scratch) was the first to introduce the WIMP (windows, icon menu, pointing device) style of GUI (graphical user interface) to the mass consumer market. In 1999, British writer and director Martyn Burke made a terrific American made-for-TV movie about the one time rivalry between Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple, as both companies fought to capitalise on the technology developed at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre). My thoughts on Pirates of Silicon Valley can be found here.

After the launch of the Apple II there was the Lisa and, in 1984, the iconic Macintosh, which promised to show why '1984 will not be like 1984'. In an audacious gamble, Jobs hired Ridley Scott to direct what was then the most expensive television advert ever made and then, undeterred by the conservative Apple board which refused to finance screening the ad, Jobs proceeded to front half the cash (the other half came from his friend and partner Steve Wozniak) to buy a $400,000 half time slot at the 1984 Super Bowl. The advert went on to the garner countless awards and set the groundwork for Apple's Creative Outsider brand image.

An unexpected detour

Then the Steve Jobs story took an odd turn. First, Wozniak quit Apple because he disapproved of how Jobs was managing the company, encouraging rivalries to develop between teams of engineers working on different products. Then, John Sculley, whom Jobs had hired from Pepsi just two years earlier (Jobs famously asked Sculley, 'do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?') had Jobs fired from the company he had himself co-founded just nine years earlier. Jobs had just turned 30.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, 'There are no second acts in American lives'. Far from becoming despondent however, in 1985, Jobs, ever the optimist, established NeXT Computer, which, although it was never very successful from a commercial perspective, is widely regarded as having layed the groundwork for a wide range of subsequent innovations in the home computer market. Also, Tim Berners-Lee was working on a NeXT computer at CERN when he designed and developed the first programs for what would become the World Wide Web.

Arguably the best investment of Steve Job's illustrious career was the $10 million he paid for the Graphics Group (George Lucas needed the money to finance his divorce), which was the computer animation division of Lucasfilm that had worked on various early CGI effects shots in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic – the Genesis effect in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan and the stained glass knight effect in Young Sherlock Holmes. Later renamed Pixar, in 1995, the studio made the first ever fully CGI animation film, a visionary act that requiring the sort of daring it is hard to imagine in a post-Toy Story world. Much like Snow White before it, the first ever fully hand drawn animation motion picture, which Walt Diseny produced in spite dire warnings from all concerned, Toy Story was a masterpiece and Steve Jobs faith in John Lasseter and his fantastic creative team venerated. Jobs always had impeccable taste.

Today Pixar is arguably the most successful movie studio in the world, with no 'flops' and a long string of unqualified hits – Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, to name just a few. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar, making Jobs the largest single individual shareholder in the The Walt Disney Company, with more stock than even Roy Disney.

The success years

In between times, without its visionary founder and principal creative driving force, Apple struggled throughout the 1990s and in 1997, when Jobs returned to his spiritual home, was actually on the verge of bankruptcy.

With Jobs back on board, the company was transformed. Job empowered creative individuals such as the brilliant British designer Jonathan Ives to create attractive and appealing consumer products, starting with the iMac in 1997. The first all-in-one PC, the computer hardware was all housed inside a monitor which was itself designed with a colourful translucent shell first issued in Bondi blue. The iMac was the first in a long line of market defining, sometimes re-defining products, launched during Jobs' second era with the company.

In 2001, Apple created the MP3 as we know it today. With around 200 times more storage than its nearest competitor at the time and the iTunes library at its centre, the iPod was not the first instance of Apple releasing a product that was well ahead of the competition. But it was Jobs ability to package and explain what was then quite a complicated concept, without condescending, that made the difference. What followed in 2007, however, was nothing short of another revolution.

The show (because that is what it was) began with a landmark announcement in Apple's corporate history, one that it is all too easy to gloss over, but one which, in retrospect, was truly a declarative statement of intentions. Apple Computer Inc. was to change its name to the more pithy and statuesque moniker of Apple Inc. This was a brand coming of age, but only a teaser for the main event.

The Apple keynote delivered by Steve Jobs in 2007 was a masterclass in presentation and the power of misdirection in storytelling, Jobs establishing and subverting expectations time and time again, leading his audience on a merry dance. Product launches are never that much fun, but it was part of Steve Job's genius (a word I do not use lightly). At first, he declared that Apple would be launching three revolutionary new products – an MP3 player, a phone and a computer. Then he said it again: an MP3 player, a phone and a computer – it sounds silly but the audience actually gasped as they watched all three merge into a single black rectangle. 'We call it iPhone'. Welcome to the world of the modern smartphone. And in 2010, Apple and Jobs did it again with the iPad, his unerring gift for giving people products that they can be passionate about, and presenting those products in such as way that they become must have items. Few technology events can have ever garnered as much mainstream media attention as the Apple iPad launch.


Apple and Steve Jobs were selling a dream, of course, but such was Jobs' personal charisma, his wit and his charm, his belief was infectious; people wanted to share in it. With Steve Jobs at the helm, there is little wonder why Apple came to engender such cult-like devotion from its fans. Jobs was unlike any other big business leader or corporate CEO, wearing trademark black polo-neck and jeans, he was Steve; a master communicator and compelling storyteller. Despite all of the success and the accoutrements of wealth and power, there was something very human about Steve Jobs - and I don't think it was too big a secret why that positive energy comes across so clearly even in what might have otherwise been quite dull corporate presentations. Steve Jobs made his living doing what he loved, he believed in the products developed by his companies and he was genuinely enthusiastic and positive about the creative possibilities and avenues for individual expression and art enabled by computer technology. He had a dream and he fought to live that dream. One of a kind. Possessed of a special kind of magic. Edison. Ford. Jobs. RIP - The Remarkable Life and Career of Steve Jobs - Keyword description


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