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:
|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.