Steve Jobs died yesterday at 56.
Jobs was fired from Apple nine years after he co-founded the company in 1976. In 1997, having engineered a stunning boardroom coup, he deposed the hapless Gil Amelio and returned to lead a company that was in a dire situation: after suffering massive losses, if it had kept to its course, Apple was 90 days from bankruptcy. Shortly after Jobs’s return, rival CEO Michael Dell gloatingly suggested that the wisest thing to do with Apple would be to “shut it down and give the money to the shareholders.”
Today, Apple is the world’s second most valuable company by market capitalization, and in recent months it’s been jockeying with Exxon Mobil for the number one spot. The company has no debt and sits on a $76 billion pile of cash.
In the meantime, Jobs revitalized the Macintosh, cornered the market on portable music players, re-invented the smartphone, and with the iPad, introduced the world’s first successful mass-market tablet computer, a form factor that its rivals had been struggling for decades to sell, without success.
And the DNA of Apple’s innovations has propagated far beyond the company’s own products. Anyone who uses competing smartphones, tablets, and PCs, no matter how much he might dislike Apple, is nevertheless living in a technological landscape that was shaped by Steve Jobs’s vision.
Jobs was unapologetic about the wealth he amassed as he built Apple into the Earth’s most valuable company. He was criticized about his lack of interest in charitable giving even as his fortune soared, yet he reportedly told friends that he could do more good for humanity by concentrating on building Apple’s business:
Two of his close friends … told me that Mr. Jobs had said to them in recent years, as his wealth ballooned, that he could do more good focusing his energy on continuing to expand Apple than on philanthropy, especially since his illness. “He has been focused on two things — building the team at Apple and his family,” another friend said. “That’s his legacy. Everything else is a distraction.”
So have Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple made the world a better place? Are our lives enriched when we answer e-mail in bed or blog in the bathroom? World-changing technological advances are rarely unambiguous boons to civilization—after all, Russell Kirk condemned automobiles “mechanical Jacobins,” and wasn’t a big fan of television, either. If the Internet is slowly shifting our brains into a stupider gear, Apple’s iDevices and their imitators are only accelerating the process. Indeed, in 2007, none other than Steve Jobs proclaimed that “people don’t read anymore”—but that was before Apple began selling e-books.
On the other hand, Apple has certainly made the gadgets that populate our daily lives far more elegant and useful than they otherwise would be. Rather than following the industry’s formula of trying to deliver more gigabytes and gigahertz for fewer dollars, Jobs turned the tech industry on its head by focusing not on technology, but on its users: his mission was to unlock the creative and productivity-enhancing potential of computers for as many people as possible. Grandmothers who fear PCs use iPads with ease.
The original Macintosh was introduced in 1984 as “the computer for the rest of us”—an easily-scoffed-at slogan, as the machine retailed for $2,495, or $5,440 in today’s dollars. But even though its products are still criticized as overpriced, Apple has since delivered on the democratic promise of computer technology. The iPhone and its peers, which are orders of magnitude more powerful than all 16 pounds of that first Mac, are within easy reach of the middle class. What’s more, you can’t get a better phone even if you’re able to pay an extra $500, $10,000 or $100,000, which is not the case with cars or televisions. Assuming Microsoft’s chairman uses a phone based on Windows Phone 7, I can safely say that, with an iPhone 4 in my humble pocket, I have a better phone than Bill Gates.
Steve Jobs changed the world, but did he make it a better place? I’ll leave the definitive answer to the intellectuals, but as someone who honors technology, beauty, and elegance, I say yes.
Jobs is gone, but we’re still living his world. May he rest in peace.