Steve Jobs, who stepped down as Apple's CEO, defined and guided a tech revolution spanning media and computing. What will be the most lasting legacy of his historic tenure?
The creation myth of Steve Jobs, Apple, and the personal computer began in 1979. The 24-year old entrepreneur visited Xerox PARC, the "innovation arm" of Xerox Corporation and Silicon Valley's leading laboratory of ideas, where he saw engineers designing what would become the modern mouse. At Xerox PARC, the mouse was a bulky thing, an idea in larva stage. But Jobs saw its potential and made it marketable and universal.
Making ideas marketable and universal is what Jobs has done for most of his career. Steve Jobs has been called the Edison of our time. That's even truer than it seems. His genius (not unlike Edison, an infamous thief of other people's best ideas) is the mainstream application of existing ideas, rather than original invention.
-- Apple wasn't the first company to think of the elements that make up the personal computer. Xerox PARC was. But Apple put the pieces together with the right design touches to make the first marketable personal computer.
-- Apple didn't invent the mp3 player. Audio Highway did. But the iPod still dominated the market with more than 300 million units sold to date.
-- Apple didn't invent the online music store. Ivan J. Parron did. But seven years after iTunes launched, it has achieved more than 70 percent market share of legal music downloads and more by selling more than 10 billion songs.
-- Apple didn't invent the first PDA, mobile phone, or smartphone. IBM, Nokia and other companies were there first. But the iPhone redefined what a phone should be.
The lesson from Steve Jobs' visit to Xerox PARC was that being first is overrated. It's better to be the best. If all art is theft, Jobs' genius came from being the smartest chisel, not just the first mallet on the block of marble.
In 20 years, what will be the idea that Steve Jobs and his tenure at the helm of Apple will have left behind? The victory of hardware in the age of software? The digitization of media? The personalization of brand?
You could do worse than settle on the triumph of design. When I spoke with Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at global market research company Millward Brown, about what makes Apple different, he said it came down to unity of vision. Apple's DNA goes way beyond its devices. The hardware is iconic and simple. The retail stores are as antiseptic as car showrooms. The website and the advertisements have the same Helvetica-on-white purity. And it all comes from a chief executive with such legendary astringency, he refused to have more than one button on the iPhone.
What makes Jobs special, even unique, among chief executives is the undiluted execution of his austere vision of simplicity. In an age of clutter, his brand spoke with clarity that everybody knew started with the guy in the black turtleneck.
APRES JOBS, LE DELUGE?
The last test of genius is its longevity. But in thinking about what comes next, it's remarkable to note how young Apple's new celebrity is. The iPod is only ten years old. A child born on the day the iPhone debuted in 2007 wouldn't yet be in kindergarten. A child born on the day the iPad debuted in 2010 might not be walking.
Still, great companies occasionally flat-line. Microsoft had the largest market cap in history in 2000 and its stock hasn't increased over the last ten years. GE's has declined. But Jobs leaves his company surprisingly well positioned. Even as the first or second most valuable company in the world, Apple's price-earnings ratio is normal to low. Its products are too superior, its potential in overseas market too big, and the global mobile tech space too fecund for Apple to face imminent decline.
Predicting what comes next is prophecy. Suffice it to say that having reinvented the personal computer, music business, phone, and personal computer (again), Steve Jobs has demonstrated and re-demonstrated his genius for us. In return, we wish him well.