Steve Jobs: The man who made Apple
One Sunday morning in 2008, Vic Gundotra, a senior executive at Google, received a message from Steve Jobs, asking him to call him at home immediately. "So, Vic," said Jobs, "we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away.
I’ve already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow.” What was this critical problem, so important that it was disrupting the weekend of two of the most important men in Silicon Valley? “I’ve been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone,” said the man from Apple, “and I’m not happy with the icon. The second 'O’ in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient. It’s just wrong and I’m going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?”
It might seem beneath the dignity of a chief executive – let alone the co-founder of one of America’s most successful companies – to let such a trifling matter intrude into his leisure time. But it is an anecdote that reveals what made Steve Jobs such a unique, and uniquely lionised, figure. It is this attention to detail, this fanatical preoccupation with aesthetics, that turned the head of Apple into the world’s first auteur chief executive, the creative titan behind the coolest, most lucrative and most desirable devices on the planet.
To many in the outside world, Apple and Jobs had long been synonymous. It is not just that he founded the company with his friend Steve Wozniak, or guided it to the point where it vies with Exxon Mobil for the status of most valuable corporation in the world. It is that both Apple’s products and Apple as a company are constructed in the image of their creator, and of his ideals.
Where Bill Gates, his great rival, represented the All-American nerd, Jobs was a college drop-out who went to India to find himself, returning as a shaven-headed Buddhist and vegetarian. As Robert Cringely wrote in Accidental Empires, a history of Silicon Valley: “Gates sees the personal computer as a tool for transferring every stray dollar, pound, peso, franc and kopeck into his back pocket. Steve Jobs looks on it as a way of changing the world.”
The way Jobs planned to do that was to turn the computer into something you wanted – needed – to use. While Wozniak focused on circuit boards and programing, Jobs was obsessed with the end product. It was his vision that brought to life the Macintosh computer, released in 1984, which introduced the mass market to such revolutionary concepts as computer mice and screens filled with adjustable windows. The advertising campaign – directed by Ridley Scott and cheekily themed after Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – promised a vision of the computer as liberator, an antidote to grey, corporate uniformity.
The irony is that this commitment to quality and beauty made Jobs something of a control freak: he offered users liberation, but only on his terms. In its first incarnation, Apple lost its grip on the computing market because its products could not be modified, functioning only according to the rigid restrictions Jobs imposed. Once others – most notably Gates – had copied Apple’s innovations, the industry gradually shunned the Mac in favour of the PC. Jobs was booted out of the company he had founded, amusing himself by buying, for $10 million, the company that became Pixar.
In 1997, a demoralised and near-defunct Apple begged its founder to return. The result was the most dramatic turnaround in corporate history – inspired by a vision of computing that Jobs had been espousing all along. Apple’s new products, which drew upon the genius of the British designer Jonathan Ive, were more gorgeous and tactile than ever. Anything clunky and cumbersome was stripped away, from keyboards to floppy disk drives. Users fell in love with the sleek, transparent iMac; Mac OS X, a beautifully intuitive new interface; the cathedral-like Apple stores; the paper-thin laptops. And then the holy trinity, the three products on which Apple’s current supremacy is built: the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.
Just as Jobs clung to his obsession with aesthetics, he still insisted on controlling every aspect of his products. The iPod or iPad would link seamlessly to Apple’s online store, where the applications had to meet the company’s painstakingly high standards. The aim was to create a garden of delights – a gentrified, beautified version of the internet where all were welcome, as long as they obeyed Apple’s rules, and paid its entry fees.
Today, Apple is reshaping industries as diverse as music, mobile phones, computer gaming and publishing. Business leaders queued up to hymn Jobs’s praises as a guru of marketing, product design and corporate strategy. Yet the downside of the “Cult of Mac” was that the company had come to be identified with the man. And the company’s culture, dictated by its boss, came to resemble its products: mysterious, perfectionist, with the inner workings sealed away. Even when Jobs developed pancreatic cancer, followed by a liver transplant, he remained Apple’s public face – leading many to believe that when he stepped back from the chief executive’s role, he would take the magic with him.
But there is more to Apple today than Jobs. The cult of personality has disguised others’ contribution to its success. As with other corporate titans such as Tesco or Wal-Mart, Apple is pervaded by a shared ethos. In 2008, the company recruited the dean of the Yale School of Management to establish an “Apple University”. This low-key institution was intended to codify the values and processes that made Apple tick, and then inculcate them into its workers: in essence, to create a Steve Jobs production line.
Of course, it is impossible to understate Jobs’s contribution. In an industry built around adding more and more features to products, his great strength was to be the man who says no, who demanded that his subordinates make an unarguable case for Apple to enter a particular market, or for its engineers to include a particular function that might detract from the purity of the user experience. His talent for generating adulatory press coverage also enabled him to point the spotlight away from Apple’s missteps, such as Apple TV, an attempt to create an iPod for television, or his prediction that electronic books would be an insignificant market. Tim Cook, his successor as chief executive, might not get the same benefit of the doubt.
Yet even if Apple’s aura starts to dim, Cook is being handed an inheritance to make any executive weep. With profits surging, Apple has shrugged off the recession: the company has $76 billion in ready cash, more than the US government.
Jobs has transformed the way we use computers, think of phones, listen to music, or play games. And by building a company that incarnates his ideals, he has done his best to ensure that the Cult of Mac will remain a part of all our lives.