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Public Lives

The vision of Steve Jobs

/ 10:31 PM October 08, 2011

The death last Oct. 5 of Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, at age 56, could not have come at a more ominous time. The day before, Apple fans awaited the public launch of what everyone expected to be an all-new iPhone 5 – the smart phone that could halt the advance of the rival Android-powered mobile phones and tablets that have recently flooded the market. Apple’s product launches have always been spectacular events largely because Steve Jobs himself presided over them. Charismatic, articulate and gifted with a flair for stimulating showmanship, he exuded the brash optimism of the digital generation.

But on this particular occasion, Jobs couldn’t be there to introduce his company’s new product. He was dying. He resigned as CEO in August this year but stayed on as board chairman. The cancer he thought he survived six years ago had returned with a new viciousness. The last time he appeared in public, he came in the same faded pair of jeans, dark turtleneck shirt, and sneakers that made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Ravaged by disease, his body had become gaunt and his voice tinny. But the same passion with which he rekindled Apple’s old competitive glory continued to glow in his deep Mediterranean eyes.

As it turned out, the new handset was not novel enough to warrant calling it the iPhone 5. It will be sold instead as the iPhone 4S. For an Apple fan like me, the numbering makes little difference. But in this closely observed and highly competitive industry, labels do matter. Jobs once said, “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” stressing the zealous attention the firm gives to innovation, functionality and elegance.

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Steve Jobs’ bluntness earned him millions of adoring fans, mostly among the young generation, but it also gained him not a few enemies and critics. People who didn’t like him refused to accord him the respect due an inventor. They portrayed him as nothing more than a compelling salesman who excelled at packaging. At a conference in 1997, shortly after his return to Apple as its interim CEO, someone from the audience threw him an insulting question. Saying that Jobs did not really know what he was talking about, the man demanded to know what exactly he had been working on in the last seven years before he rejoined Apple.

It was an embarrassing moment. Jobs was piqued by the man’s arrogance, and tried to keep his poise in the face of an obvious provocation. After a tentative start, he proceeded to address it as a serious question. Yes, he said, in some ways, the gentleman is right. The engineering that goes into these products is complex, and bright people must work in teams to develop them. No one can claim he understands everything. My role, he said, is to fit all the elements into a larger cohesive vision and strategy that would enable the company to sell billions of dollars of products every year.

Explaining his entrepreneurial approach, he said: “Don’t build something and then try to market it hoping people would like it. Instead, build something intelligently so that you know people would need it, else it’s your loss…. You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re gonna try to sell it.”

This seems at first blush like conventional marketing wisdom. But, here lies, I think, the peculiar genius of Steve Jobs. Standing at the boundary of technology and everyday life, he was able to see the possibilities from both sides. He knew what his engineers were capable of creating. But, beyond this, he saw how people’s lives were evolving, and how the new technology could be harnessed to benefit the people who use it. He was not concerned with knowing what kinds of devices or machines customers thought they needed. He formed his own view of what customers needed so that their lives would be richer, broader and lighter. In that sense, he supplied not just the products but the needs themselves. Today, for example, the iPad is used everywhere for all kinds of tasks. Yet it would be inaccurate to say that in offering the iPad, Apple was merely responding to a felt need for tablet computers.

Steve Jobs was a true visionary, and perhaps a far more unusual human being than any of his contemporaries. His father was an exchange student from Syria. His mother, an unwed graduate student, put him up for adoption when he was born, insisting that whoever adopted him should make a pledge to send him to college when the time came.

After high school, Jobs showed an uncommon drive to learn, but he refused to be constrained by a regular curriculum. He dropped out of college after one semester because he thought he was wasting his adopted working class parents’ hard-earned money – and then continued to audit the courses he liked. He turned to Buddhism when he was young, developing an inner fortitude that saw him through many failures and lost battles.

Addressing the graduating class of Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs compressed his life’s philosophy into three lessons. (1) Trust that the dots in your life will eventually connect down the road. You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward. (2) The only way to do great work is to love what you do. You’ve got to find what you love. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking; don’t settle. (3) Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

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