Is Steve Jobs the Michelangelo of our times ?
February 4, 2011
Billionaire and a leading figure in 4 industries, His Steveness, as his afficionados nicknamed him, enjoys a unique status as a tech business icon today.
This post as an attempt to understand how SJ became such an iconic figure of the 21st century and to find an equivalent in history (note : there is a hint in the title) ….
The avant-garde as the only strategy
In Chief Cultural Officer, Canadian anthropologist Grant McCracken explains how critical it is to take culture into account while building a corporate strategy. According to McCracken, few leaders have done that as well as Steve Jobs.
Our culture has been predicated on a simple distinction between the mainstream and the avant-garde. The mainstream is supposed to be conformist, unimaginative and controlling; The avant-garde is supposed to be rebellious, risk taking, creative and reckless. Along comes Steve Jobs : “Perfect we’ll play the avant-garde and PC can be mainstream” (Grant McCracken)
In product development strategy, there are 2 approaches: answering customer requests or surprising with innovative products. The first strategy is more conservative and at best delivers satisfaction. The second is much more risky but when it works, it is the source of a much higher reward: fascination.
Jobs has made his mind. You can not just ask the public what it wants and then try to build it because when you deliver them, they want something else. The idea of positioning as a follower is not an option. Ignoring client request is a principle that this New York Times article highlights. What market research have you done to prepare the launch of the iPad ? SJ: None, it’s not the customers job to know what they want.
Innovation @ Apple = Design …
Many critics of Apple in the industry reduce Apple to “nicely designed objects” without technical capabilities. Those are the very people whose beliefs and technological products has been made obsolete by Apple products.
Further proof, if necessary, their misunderstanding of the transformation of public expectations. Design is not Just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works (Jobs).
… + Usability …
This most disruptive feature is the seamless experience brought by the rebound in the scroll. This fluidity pleases us because it is natural. In nature there is little abrupt and discontinuous events: the rebound in the scrolling list of the iPhone makes the user experience seamless and natural.
Much the same thing with the iPod wheel: the finger slips on the wheel rather than jumping from button to button. According to Sierra, if Apple products are so addictive is because they meet one of the principles of animation.
… + Simplicity …
Furthermore, great products can only be the result of great focus on a specific business target as Jobs replied to Business Week : Innovation emerge when saying no to thousands of things to ensure that the we do not take the wrong path or try to do too much.
As John Sculey (the last person who managed Jobs) puts it : “What makes Steve’s methodology different from any other is that he has always known that the most important decisions you make are not the things you do but the things you decide not to do.”
… + Eco-systems
Another characteristic of innovation according to Jobs : the creation of eco-systems. Jobs fully integrated context awareness in his strategy and proposes a fully integrated offer involving computer, software, portable devices and online offer.
The iPod with iTunes, the iMac and iTunes Store, the iPhone AppStore, and iBookStore iPad. Apple sells a full and connected experience which has already revolutionized both the music and mobile industries.
Jobs and Hackers
If His Steveness has always stood his grounds before customers wishes, he has done the same with another influential computer industry corporation : hackers and free software community.
There has been some rapprochement in the early 2000s with the advent of the Mac OS X Operating System with its Unix based kernel, similar to Linux’s and cherished by the community. Back then, the community shares a common enemy with Jobs : Bill Gates and Microsoft Operating system : Windows.
This alliance did not last long. Jobs identified piracy as an enemy of its iTunes strategy and protected Apple Mobile Phone Operating System (iOS used by iPad, iPhone) from any hacking. The crux of the conflict is addressed by #hypertextual when the iPad came out :
Here is the problem for Geeks : technology is largely democratized. Technological prowesses are no longer something to be proud of. Lovely apps are. What people want is apps that are useful and usable by anyone, regardless of how complicated they are. Steve Jobs vision has completely hidden the technology behind the usability in the innovation definition. In Geeks law, this is sacrilege.
As opposed to the standard image of the genius, usually depicted as someone detached from the everyday life contingencies, Steve Jobs has proved to be ruthless in the way he drove his business.
We all are fascinated by the laid back attitude during the keynotes. We’re even more when we find out how much effort is required during the preparation. Mike Evangelist article provides a great perspective on how His Steveness prepares such events.
This efficiency can also be seen in the way Apple has designed the Apple Stores. Jobs has recruited specialists in retailing and then had a first prototype made. He tested that prototype shop himself before asking for the whole shop to be fully revamped to integrate his recommendations and he tested it again. At the time of this Fortune article, Apple Stores are the ones that generate the biggest turnover of U.S. per square-foot ($4,032 Vs $930 for Best Buy).
Steve Jobs has acquired a status far above any other golden boys of the computer industry such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Michael Dell (Dell) or Larry Elison (Oracle) thanks to his incredible talent as a visionary. He will be the one people remember because he literally made the future happens. Whatever all the Jean-Marie Messier of the world promised while gesticulating in the early 00s, Jobs has delivered and made them available to the public, in the shape of glamorous devices.
While focusing on design and usability, he managed to make technology seamless and natural, to make it an extension of man. It has transformed the silicium of unsexy geeky technology stuff into the gold of social objects.
There is no question we are living revolutionary times. In 15 years we have witnessed the advent of new communication technologies with the Internet, mobile phones and mobile devices. These technologies have completely changed the dynamic of modern societies.
Jobs is obviously nowhere near such an artist as the great Tuscan. Paul Graham had to endure some hilarious backfires while comparing hackers and painters so we have to be careful here. However, with his vision and Apple Products, he is the icon of the digital revolution just like Michelangelo was the one of the Renaissance.