Anti-Jobs

While many people have been expressing admiration and loss after the death of Steve Jobs, there are, as usual, always a few people who love to be negative. These people especially like to be contrarians, so it’s even better for them when there are a large number of people to oppose. The comment I’ve seen most often is, “Steve Jobs didn’t actually create any of those things at Apple. He wasn’t a designer or engineer, he was just some business dude.” If the internet had been around in 323 BCE, people would probably have been saying, “You know, Alexander of Macedon didn’t actually create that army. I mean, really, he just inherited it from his dad, Phillip. So I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s not like he was down there on the front lines with the soldiers, or creating siege engines or anything.”

The performance of Apple over the last decade, since Jobs’ return, has been phenomenal. They’ve consistently come out with innovative products and virtually created whole consumer-electronics markets. They’ve consistently grown in profitability far beyond the industry average, have even increased market share in the well-established personal computer market, and have a virtual lock on the high end of the notebook computer market. They made smart phones and tablets — both of which had been failing to catch on for years — into mainstream products that everyone wants to own.

You can hate on Jobs personally all you want, but his track record as a CEO is so much better than anyone else in tech that you’d have to be delusional to argue that Apple would have made any of their iconic products without him. From the first iMac line and iPod, to the iPhone and iPad, Apple under Jobs created a string of successful and profitable — as well as influential — products. The few failures are near-misses that would have been hailed as successes if they’d come from another company.

The Apple TV was depreciated as a “hobby” by Jobs, but even first-generation Apple TVs sold over half a million units, and that was the least successful model. The new model introduced at the end of 2010 sold over a million units in a single quarter. In comparison, TiVo subscribers topped out at about 2 million in October of 2010, and the boxes for TiVo service are made by several different manufacturers, each looking for a piece of that market. Sales of the popular Roku DVRs were only anticipated to break the million-unit mark by the end of 2010, and at the kind of margins they have to have on the low end for a DVR that costs only $60, I doubt they’re as profitable per-sale.

What products from HP or Dell on the hardware side, or Microsoft, Yahoo, or even Google on the software side can you point to and say, “This changed everything”? Can you name a single model of current computers from HP or Dell without looking it up, much less an influential design that other manufacturers tried to emulate?

The one thing that Microsoft has created that most people can name is the gaming division, and Xbox and Xbox 360 sales and software profits are a rounding error on Microsoft’s balance sheet. There are probably 10 failed products to every one semi-successful MS product in the last 10 years, all of which were underwritten by the ubiquitous, denigrated, bloated, but still enormously profitable Windows and Office software lines. The Zune is a punchline to the iPod’s icon, and Microsoft’s vaporware “big-assed table” looks pathetic compared to even the first severely limited iPhone, which Ballmer is famous for laughing at as unworthy of serious comment.

Yahoo has been stagnant for most of a decade, and their every acquisition (with the possible exception of Flickr, which has sadly also been mostly inert since it was bought) has disappeared into obscurity. Yahoo used to be a place where all the smart people wanted to work. Now it’s where software goes to die, and the creative people leave after acquisition, presumably because they know their creative efforts will be stymied by the corporate culture there.

The one new thing everyone is talking about with Google is the Android OS for mobile devices. While promising on the surface, Android has turned into a morass of suck. Due to prior patents, Microsoft actually makes money off Android, while Google gets nothing directly from handset makers who use the software. They should make money off increased advertising revenue, but it remains to be seen if those profits will offset the money sunk into development and future patent disputes. Meanwhile, Google is slowly becoming like an evil clone of Apple in order to curb the growing fragmentation of the platform, their app store doesn’t make money for Android developers, and the carriers have maintained their usual practices of making customers their bitches when it comes to software updates, interfering with both the handset makers and Google’s efforts. Google’s forays into different markets are getting painful to watch. Every time they steer away from their core proficiency they expose an endemic lack of focus and polish. Everything from Google used to be labeled “beta,” and maybe they should have stuck with that practice. Truth in advertising.

You know what’s missing from these companies? Someone like Steve Jobs was. Someone with a vision for the future of the company, the kind of products they should make, the services they should offer. All of these other tech companies flail around trying to figure out how to be everything to everyone. Back in 1997, when Jobs came back to Apple, he said, “Focus is about saying no,” and Apple’s practices and product lines have reflected that philosophy.

No, Jobs wasn’t down there in the labs coding. And he wasn’t personally designing the cases, or processors. And he wasn’t writing copy for their advertising and product boxes. But because of his famous attention to detail, his fingerprints are on every single element of everything Apple makes. And that’s why Apple changed from a company that was headed for bankruptcy into one whose market cap recently surpassed every other company in the US, and whose products are so influential that competitors try (and usually fail) to emulate them. Jobs was every bit as much a creator of those products as the engineers and designers who made the final designs. Without him, I have no doubt that — assuming the company still existed — Apple’s electronics would be every bit as “innovative” and “well designed” as the leaders in the industry.