Steve Jobs, Innovator

It took a couple of weeks to read through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (it’s 600 pages or 2 million Amazon Kindle pages). As pretty much everyone has said, it is a gripping read and I, for one, cannot recommend it enough. But you should be warned. It is not a traditional biography but instead something more contemporary. If it were shorter, it would be a good profile piece. Because while Isaacson talked to all and sundry, the endeavour has a modern feel to it and one gets the sense that the weight of what may prove to be important in the future is somewhat askew. For instance, there is time devoted to iCloud and no time at all to the AT&T exclusivity deal for the iPhone. Time will tell if that was the right choice.

Nonetheless, one aspect that one can’t help thinking about while reading about Steve Jobs is innovation. Jobs is being held in the same league as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. And one suspects that it is entirely appropriate. The personal computer alone is enough to warrant that status. But it is also the case that Apple has led the industry from start until at least Jobs’ finish. For instance, about 5 years ago I used to teach an MBA course on innovation. In my very first lecture, I presented a slide that showed Apple as a serial innovator. Here it is:

Date Innovation
1974 First single circuit board computer (Apple I)
1976 First personal computer (Apple II)
1983 First graphical user interface and mouse (Lisa)
1983 Microsoft Word (first on Apple)
1987 Apple talk (first PC network)
1991 First multi-task OS for PCs (System 7)
1993 First PDA (Newton)
1999 USB/Firewire standard and wireless networking
2001 Integrated flat panel
2002 iTunes and iPod/iLife

This slide was written in 2005 but because of what I could fit on the slide I would only talk about the iTunes Music Store (2003). This was all before the iPhone and what came after. Interestingly, much of that innovation was between 1985 and 1996 when Jobs was not at Apple.

Pretty much all of these technologies were not the invention of Apple per se but had their origins elsewhere. This is borne out in the book too. Even multi-touch was purchased from outside of Apple. What this suggests is that Apple was a serial adopter rather than an innovator.

One could, of course, argue what innovation means anyhow. But the process is important here. Apple seems to have relied on identifying problems, envisioning solutions, procuring technology and then tweaking to get it to perfection. Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell in his review chose to focus entirely on the latter. He characterised Jobs as a tweaker. In so doing, he was inspired by a paper by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr that will be published in the 50th Anniversary Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity volume later this year.

In this light, the ‘mere tweaker tag,’ even if romanticised by its position in industrial technological history, does not really describe what Jobs did. And it certainly does not describe how and why he did it. Amongst the most interesting aspects of his life was the apparent lack of monetary motivation (he made his first billion out of Pixar, not Apple) and also his own personal desire as a consumer of technology. He was just dissatisfied with how his life was organised and the technologies that supported it. So he saw his problems as the problems faced by others and set out to solve them. And for every attention to detail that was knocked out and for every time he scrapped a direction and started again, millions of us live everyday with gratitude.

Finally, there is a theme running through the book as to whether Jobs could have done what he had done and been nicer about it. The book offers no resolution but is certainly sympathetic to the idea that poor behaviour can be excused. In that regard, it reminded me of Primary Colors that had the same theme but in the political realm. To get the benefits it seemed like you had to accept the lumps.

But I can’t help but think of the poor signal value of all that. How many people will now view Jobs’ story as a license to be poorly behaved in justification of their own actual or perceived virtues? Can it really be possible to pursuing perfection in one aspect of your life while being resoundingly imperfect in others and at the same time hold out perfection as a moral value? It doesn’t seem right but then again I have an iPhone and have never been hit by the costs of Jobs. We’ll have to surely leave that judgment to those that have.

3 Replies to “Steve Jobs, Innovator”

  1. I think the greater takeaway is that Steve Jobs was a visionary with a rightful place among the likes of Edison etc AND he was also ultimately a human being with flaws.

    There will be other visionaries in the future and they may or may not be assholes but they will definitely have their own flaws as perfection is totally unrealistic.

    The sooner we can accept that someone can be great and imperfect and not see it as an uncomfortable dichotomy, the better for us all, I think.

  2. Your timeline above seems to have a couple errors and several areas open to interpretation. I stared this comment because a couple of your dates looked wrong. As I researched, I find that most of your Apple “innovations” were wrong in some sense.

    My source for most of this is quick web searches, with Wikipedia a major source. I invite you to correct Wikipedia if it’s wrong. I also rely on personal recollections since I’ve been involved in the computer industry and PCs since the mid 1970s.

    – Per Wikipedia the Apple I was released in 1976. While I don’t remember the date, it used the 6502 chip and I do remember the 6502 was released after 1974.

    – The Apple II was released in 1977. Of course, we won’t talk about the (lack of) quality of early Apple products.

    – You should state “first graphical user interface designed around a mouse” and qualify it as “in a retail consumer computer”. I was using graphical user interfaces in the mid 1970’s, though based on a touch screen or cursor keys, plus these were not on a personal computer.

    – Apple Talk was not the first PC network. I have a book “The Local Area Network Book” from SAMS published in 1984 which describes various networks for personal computers, including Apple computers. Novell NetWare was released in 1983, and was different from existing PC networks (file rather than disk based). In addition, Wikipedia puts AppleTalk at 1984, though it appears to depend on whether you’re looking at when it existed verses when it was used.

    – IBM TopView was a multi-tasking system for the IBM PC released in 1984. Tandy released Xenix (Unix derivative) for some of their systems in 1983. OS/2 (1987) was also multi-tasking. System 7 used cooperative multi-tasking, Apple did not provide pre-emtive multi-tasking until OS X (2002?) while Windows NT (1993) was pre-emptive, as was OS/2 (with odd restrictions for DOS applications).

    – Wikipedia says Microsoft Word was on the PC in 1983, on Apple in 1984 (or 1985). I don’t see any reference to Microsoft Word on the Apple Lisa, since the Mac came out in 1984 I presume Word was 1984.

    – Apple coined the term “PDA”, and the Newton was the first popular PDA type device, though some existed earlier.

    – The first IEEE 1394 (Firewire) standard was in 1995, well before your 1999 date. Apple did initiate Firewire. As far as I know, Apple was not really involved in USB development (they were pushing Firewire).

    – I’m not sure what you mean by an integrated flat panel. Laptop computers using flat panel displays existed well before 2001. The University of Illinois / Control Data PLATO system used a flat panel in its terminals in 1975. Not knowing what this means, I can’t really judge it.

    – I’ll give you the iPod and iTunes, they did revolutionize the audio player.

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