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The Voice of Steve Jobs                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/08/2011 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: People, Perspectives,

For anyone who does not pay attention to the news, Steve Jobs passed away recently after a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer. I never personally met the man, but I feel the loss. There is that twinge you feel when someone very near your own age passes, or maybe it is because of his iconic presence in an industry that is so much a part of all of our lives. Others who have met the man will write things I could not dream of with an elegance I will not pretend to have.

I seem to have ended out following Steve Jobs in the media for more than a decade. As a software developer, there is an obvious association with his creations and my professional life. More recently I followed articles about his medical condition. My sister was diagnosed with the same form of cancer 18 months ago and like Steve, succumbed to its relentless push a couple of months ago. Rather than mourn the passing of this man, I thought I would take some time to share why I feel he has been an icon of my generation.

In truth, as others before me have said: Steve Jobs may be “my generation’s Henry Ford and Walt Disney rolled into one.” Henry Ford and Walt Disney were definitely great innovators of their day, and Jobs belongs in the same list. These are people who dared to see things differently, and against the odds fought with all their will to make their visions a reality. Their new reality in turn changed all our lives in their own lifetime.

For this concept to make sense, you have to understand the “change the work ethos” of Apple, the company we associate Steve Jobs with.

There are things I could say about the founding of Apple computers and the evolutions of the Mac, but for me the story really begins in 2001. It was the year Steve Jobs returned to Apple as an interim CEO of the struggling computer company he had previously built to prominence. With his force of will, he cleaned out most of the senior leadership and refocused the company on its innovative roots.

You know Apple’s products: the iPod, iTunes software, the Apple retail stores, the iPhone and most recently the iPad. Jobs’ greatness is not so much in these products, or in his resurrection of Apple from near death. Steve Jobs’ greatness lies in the innovative process that he used to turn Apple into one of America’s most valuable business resources.

You need to understand that smart companies have smart people doing things in smart ways. One of the things that smart companies try and avoid is what is called disruption. That means that in the pursuit of profit, they will go out of their way to avoid too significant a change from what already works for them. The results are a focus on listening only to your best customers and a zeal to improve only your best products. In the end, the outcome can be very myopic.

One of the best examples of this has been the American auto industry. In an effort to avoid disruption, they moved to up scaling all their SUV’s and effectively ceded smaller and cheaper vehicles with less profit to the low-cost market entrants. By the way, these industry cycles continue as the Japanese manufacturers are struggling in the same way with the Koreans.

Basically, this is the way in which big established incumbent companies will open up part of their market to upstarts that are much more focused on creating something new. But for a decade, Apple under Steve Jobs’ leadership has been one of the most significant examples of a company that has avoided this pattern of disruption. Actually, that is not entirely true; Apple has been disrupting itself.

A common phrase we hear from so many companies is “we put our customers first,” but for most firms, when the quarterly numbers are on the line they make their choice based on those numbers. I have never sat in their board room, but this does not seem to be what Apple has been about.

As an example, think about the iPod. Here is an established computer company that is used to selling computers for $2,000-3,000 each and they roll out a product that will sell for a fraction of the price with a related smaller profit per unit. For most big companies, this is a path they would have never gone down and the new gadget would have had to come from some small startup. This takes gutsy leadership at the top and I credit Steve jobs for showing us a different way to do business.

As remarkable as all this sounds, look at the iPad — this is the latest innovative success from Apple. But the iPad is also a disrupter for their own established personal computer market — find me another company willing to do that!

All the business lessons aside, I am reminded of an adapted version of the tag line from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Rather than focusing on building something and then trying to convince us we should buy it, Apple has built great things and let us decide we can’t live without them.

Henry Ford produced the car on a scale that made it affordable for everyone. Walt Disney brought family entertainment to a level never before dreamed.

Steve Jobs created the modern Apple, where profit is not the ultimate goal; instead it is the consequence of making great things. For these reasons, the world always stopped to listen when he spoke and his voice will be missed.

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