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iDead: Steve Jobs

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iDead: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was a true super star; a creative genius who eclipsed his peers and joined the rare echelon of brilliant individuals who have changed the world forever and for the better. But I am not here to praise him. Rather, I want to highlight some of the many important lessons we can find in his career at Apple.

While he will always be remembered as the heart and face of Apple, the company’s success goes beyond just one man. He was a great, and in many ways an unparalleled visionary. He also was a great leader who assembled and developed an outstanding team. One person alone rarely can reach great heights. Success requires teamwork, as well as an effective and inspirational leader. Too often, CEOs and politicians believe that they alone are needed for their enterprises to succeed. Such people rarely are leaders, and even more rarely are they visionaries and successful.

Steve Jobs saw opportunities where others did not. The original PC freed us from the “IBM model”, whereby we were restricted to dumb terminal directly connected to large mainframes. We were prisoners to our office. We were unable to use computers and their computing powers at home or anywhere else. There was no mobility or flexibility.

Jobs saw the tyranny of this model and the subsequent potential in giving people the freedom. After the PC we were able to do most necessary computing functions anywhere, thus greatly magnifying the potential of computers and computing. I remember taking my first Mac with me to Australia in 1985 – it was much larger than today’s laptops, but it was mobile.

IBM saw no future in PCs. They were toys, and IBM was wedded to its model, which 35 years later actually has evolved with high-speed and ubiquitous Internet connectivity and “clouds”. As a result, IBM played a minor role in the development and evolution of PCs and the latest generation of devices connecting to and communicating via the Internet and other telecom networks. IBM set the stage for the creation and growth of Apple, Microsoft and Intel. Today, the combined values of these three companies approximate $700 billion, or more than three times the present value of IBM.

Where would Apple be today if it were not for the Internet or the ability to connect wirelessly or via broadband? It would be a minor player in consumer electronics – much like Sony. However, Jobs recognized the potential of technological changes in other, but related, areas for his company. How many executives or politicians understand the implications of developments elsewhere for their companies or governments? Unfortunately too few because they prefer a blinkered existence. Who foresaw the Arab Spring? It does not seem as if anyone in the US State Department did.

Apple products have appealed to people because of their simplicity and design. Jobs understood the importance of making products easy to use. Engineers on the other hand like complexity. They do not seem to appreciate the benefits of simplicity – consider your remote controls. As a result, engineers have driven many companies, such as GM and AIG, into the ground.

Bureaucrats also like complexity – real or imagined. This makes them feel superior because they feel as if they are the only ones smart enough to handle complexity. As well, complexity provides a good cover for mistakes.

International affairs are driven by complexity, and we see the results. The US has largely been a non-entity as the political face of North Africa changed dramatically. The US also has been criticized as a hypocrite for standing idly by two years ago as the protests in Iran were beaten into the ground, and as the body count in Syria continues to rise daily. Of course, the issues are much too complex for a simpleton like myself to understand.

Steve Jobs was not perfect. He did make mistakes. I bought my first Mac 27 years ago. It was simple to use and fast for its generation – the result of Jobs’ vision and understanding of consumers. I could not understand why my colleagues and friends insisted on using DOS-based computers (the world of Microsoft). The running joke in the mid-1990s was that Microsoft OS 1995 was simply Apple OS 1984.

Apple chose not to license its software. If the company had done so in 1983, it is unlikely that Microsoft would have survived that decade. Like IBM before, Apple opened the door for Microsoft to dominate the PC market. Apple almost did not survive as Microsoft aggressively exploited its position.

Apple might be repeating the same mistake today as it refuses to license the operating systems for its iPhone and iPad. Consequently, Google has become by far the largest player in cell phone operating systems. (Google did not exist 15 years ago, and today its is worth more than Royal Bank, TD and ManuLife combined.)

Will Apple meet the same fate this time round as it did in the 1980s? I suspect that the brain trust at Apple believe that they will be able to avoid that outcome by continuing to stay two or three steps/generations ahead of their competitors (this is a lesson that RIM failed to learn and it is paying a very dear price as a result).

Maybe they will be right. But maybe another visionary will come along and just leapfrog them, leaving Apple and its current band of competitors in the dust. Dominance does not last forever, as Schumpeter once reminded us. (This is also a lesson that the competition authorities seem to forget.)

Steve Jobs was a brilliant man, and his career leaves us with countless lessons.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


1 Comment

  1. Swati October 16, 2011

    I strongly believe that Apple should chose to license its software. No doubt they are doing extremely well today but they should not be overconfident about the fact that they will continue to stay ahead of their competitors. After all, there are countless software companies trying hard to step into their shoes.

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