It would be vulgar to say that the proof of the correctness of Jobs’s vision is reflected in the gigantic capitalisation value of the Apple Corporation, the almost fantastically unbelievable margins and the eye-popping cash richness which has transformed a company that was on the brink of collapse when Jobs arrived back in 1997 into the greatest of them all. All this despite low market share and an almost fanatical attention to detail and finish which would have 99% of CFO’s weeping into their spreadsheets.
“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.” Steve Jobs in an Interview with Fortune Magazine, 2000
Which is not to say that abject worship is the only allowable viewpoint when it comes to the life and career of this magnificently complicated man. I am very glad that I did not work for him. I cannot claim he was a friend but over thirty year or so years I bumped into him from time to time and he was always warm, charming, funny and easy to talk to, yet I know, and the world has already been told enough times over the past few days and weeks, that he was a fearsome boss, often a tempestuous mixture of martinet, tyrant, bully and sulky child. His perfectionism, the absolute conviction and certainty in the rightness of his opinions and – I am afraid it is true, as it is of so many leaders, Churchill and other great figures not excluded – his propensity apparently to have originated an idea that he had previously dismissed but now suddenly owned and championed, these traits must have maddened his colleagues. But the charisma, passion, delight in detail, excitement and belief in the creation of a new future – the sheer magnetic force of the man made his many faults a forgivable and almost loveable part of his mystique and greatness.
The quality I especially revered in him was his refusal to show contempt for his customers by fobbing them off with something that was “good enough”. Whether it was the packaging, the cabling, the use of screen space, the human interfaces, the colours, the flow, the feel, the graphical or textural features, everything had to be improved upon and improved upon until it was, to use the favourite phrase of the early Mac pioneers “insanely great”. It had to be so cool that you gasped. It had to feel good in the hand, look good to the eye and it had to change things. It changed things because it made users want to use the devices as they had never been used before. As I used to say of the Mac in the early days, “it makes me jump out of bed early to start work”. People may not think so but I’m as lazy as can be, and the creative, human-based implementation of technology in such a way as to encourage labour and thereby invigorate innovation and change is a remarkable achievement in so potentially dull a sector as computing.
Jobs said, when he presented the iPad to the world in 2010 that he regarded Apple as standing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. I pointed out that it might have been more accurate to say that Apple stood at the intersection of technology, the liberal arts and commerce. There is no doubt that as Disney’s biggest shareholder, as the boss of Pixar, the company that virtually invented computer animated cinematography, Jobs was in a unique position to bang heads together when it came to getting studio and record label bosses to consent to copyright agreements for what was to become the iTunes store, just one of the massive “game-changing” contributions he made to technology and the arts.
A control freak? Well, since “freak” is always the word used in such a context, then yes. But it was that control that won the war, freakish or not. The so-called “walled-garden” approach whereby Apple make the hardware, the software and control third party access to the APIs and architecture of each device may madden many but they are precisely what allows the devices to work so well, so cleanly, so fluently out of the box. They allow longer battery-life, less heat, more stable operating and dozens of other enormous advantages. If different companies are making the firmware, software, chips, screens, operating system, radios and cases the results will always be far less coherent and usable devices. I have nothing against Android and admire the idea of an Open Handset Alliance. I don’t want to be characterised as an incurable unthinking Apple “fanboi” – but I cannot fight the instinct that makes my hand always reach for the pocket with the iPhone in it when I have a Windows 7, a Blackberry and an Android just as available in other pockets. I have in the past set myself the task of using only an Android for two weeks, or only a Windows 7 phone or only a Blackberry and while it can be done (obviously) I am less content, more frustrated and crucially as far as I am concerned, less productive as a result. And the fact remains that it is so much easier to survive on an Android, a Windows 7 phone or a Blackberry nowadays precisely because they have all fundamentally modelled themselves on Apple criteria. They want to be smooth, graphically pleasing, they want the user to love and enjoy them. The frustratingly silly patent wars that are raging around the world between Google, Samsung, Apple and dozens of other companies would be a sad obsequy to Jobs’s colossal achievements, but with such gigantic sums of money in so huge a market at stake it is little wonder that others will do all they can to “crack” Apple. Well that is fine, I have no shares in the company. So long as the way they crack Apple is to learn from Steve Jobs that style matters, that beauty matters, that joy, simplicity, elegance, harmony, charm, wit and quality matter – well, I don’t care which company has the best stock market capitalisation.