27 August 2011

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs seems to be on his way out.

I don't mean that he is dying, we all are. He is just leaving his "meaning of life" behind. Usually, death intervenes shortly thereafter.

Incidentally, I didn't take the announcement as a sign that his condition worsened. My guess is that he was planning to leave at this point but wanted the markets to get used to the idea that Tim Cook is the new CEO of Apple.

Speaking of passing, last week, I was saddened to hear of Jack Layton's untimely death. I did not know him. I was sad because he was one of the very few people about whom you could say "he was a mensch" without fearing a riposte from your audience. And that's rare for anyone, let alone a politician.

Jobs, by all accounts, is not a mensch. He is a visionary, an exceptionally gifted observer of economic and technological trends and a very demanding boss. People always point to his achievements like Macintosh computers or those ubiquitous techno-gadgets like iPhone, iPod and and iPad.

To me, these are not achievements, they are the result of the choices he made at critical moments. I consider those choices his greatest achievements as they were very difficult and no one else made them at the time (or, I believe, could have made them). Hence, instead of his professional career with its ups and downs, and some dubious techno-gadgets like the Newton along the way, if you just look at those choices, you will see that he has an unbroken record of making the right move every single time.

GUI Interface

Apple I and II with Woz was not the first of such choices. That was just a good starting point. His realization that the strange ideas coming out of Xerox' Palo Alto Center (PARC) were going to revolutionize computing was his first genius move. While everyone else was focusing on CP/M and MS DOS he thought that mouse and icon driven Graphical User Interface (GUI) was the future. He started with LISA and then he created MacIntosh or Mac as it is universally known.


When he was forced out of Apple in 1985 by Pepsi-man Sculley, his move was to set up NeXT computers and have the operating system based on UNIX. At a time when Windows, a second rate copy of the Mac Operating System (OS), was struggling to maintain its DOS legacy, Jobs thought that personal computing should be based on very solid foundations. NeXT was based on UNIX, a legendary OS used in mission-critical servers. As such, it was secure, stable and very advanced with a number of firsts like a WYSIWYG screen.


His third move around the same time was to buy Pixar, a fledgling animation studio, and implement the notion that computers can be used to produce animated movies. When everyone else thought of exploiting Asian artists for their cheap labor, he bet on the computers. Everyone remembers the first Toy Story and the wonderment it generated.

When Apple decided to bring back Jobs, he forced them to buy NeXT and used that OS as the foundation of the new generation of Mac software. He decided that having a solid and stable foundation was more important than supporting legacy software. That foundation yielded not only the MAC OS X series but also the iPhone OS and iPad OS. Without it, Apple could never have pulled those techno-gadgets off.

Specialized Gadgets to Replace the PC

Once at the helm again, his next genius move was to focus on specialized gadgets as a way of distributing content. The iPod is less important than iTunes in that respect. Sure, iPod caught the imagination of consumers and it was an extraordinary design but what transformed the world was iTunes that made hundreds of millions of tracks available to everyone for affordable prices. He simply revolutionized the music distribution business.

He was trying to do the same with videos and TV shows through Apple TV. There, he finally met some competition and resistance but the idea itself is equally revolutionary. If what is known as IPTV succeeds (and I believe it will) it will make life very difficult for cable companies just like VoIP made telcos very unhappy. It will also speed up the convergence of computers and consumer electronics and change the way content is distributed and consumed.

His least successful (but no less brilliant) move was Cloud Computing, where MobileMe stumbled badly. But never one to admit defeat, he pushed iCloud and if Tim Cook gets the pricing right it could become a major success as well.

When that last piece falls into place, computing and the consumption of digital media will become a truly mobile and fluid experience.

It was Sun's McNeally who made up the motto "The network is the computer" but it was Steve Jobs who made it possible by introducing all the necessary components.

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