Steve Jobs' One Big Idea


A very smart friend of mine once said that the whole difference between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and thus between Microsoft and PCs and Apple, was simply that Bill Gates thought everyone wanted to be a programmer, at least a little bit, and Steve Jobs said, oh, no, they don't.

Gates and Jobs both came out of the world of hobbyists and tech enthusiasts who invented the personal computer. Those were all people who loved electricity and electronics and machines and mathematical logic. They looked at the world of mainframe computers run by professional programmers and thought, anybody can have this. Steve Wozniak, who built the first Apple computer, was one of those hobbyists. But Steve Jobs, the other side of the Apple equation, thought different. He saw a much bigger world opening, where nobody had to program or tinker but people could do things far beyond anything computers had done before or had yet been thought of doing.

Computers had been huge adaptable calculating machines. The first PCs built with Microsoft's DOS operating system followed that formula. They were great for formatting documents, and for building spreadsheets and databases. They allowed you to get inside them and insert commands into programs to alter almost anything. Meanwhile Steve Jobs made his famous visit to Xerox Parc in 1979 and instantly grasped the potential of the graphical user interface and the mouse as nobody else did, as ways to make the user's connection to a computer far more direct and intuitive. It was as if all the inventors of the automobile had thought, here's a great replacement for the horse that you can play with and modify to no end, but only one of them had thought, here is romance and luxury and power and a new way of life and a reordering of social systems and living arrangements and human interactions.

I believe that that fundamentally different view is behind all of Steve Jobs' great accomplishments. It brought us the first Macintosh computer, introducing to a mass market the GUI and the mouse and the ease of use and naturalness they made possible. It led him to his experiments with the NeXT computer and then to the iMac after he returned to Apple, when he moved further beyond the atavistic view of the personal computer by renouncing the ubiquitous putty-colored box with a monitor on top of it. It raised him to see beyond a personal computer to a personal music device using the PC's potential in a totally user-friendly, non-technical way for the pure pursuit of human passion. It enabled him to see that smartphones needn't be just phones wedded to mini-PCs with mini-keyboards; that technology, too, could break free of its atavistic origins and open new horizons of possibilities involving all kinds of human experiences and interactions. And on to the iPad, freeing even a larger device from the keyboard and mouse and the world they came from, and iCloud, unleashing us from all our wires and cables and our tethering to localized data storage. Nobody else thought of these things.

Or at least no one else thought of these things and saw them through. The other side of Steve Jobs' greatness is of course his terrific courage. As his biographer Alan Deutschman says in today's New York Times, “The big thing about Steve Jobs is not his genius or his charisma but his extraordinary risk-taking. Apple has been so innovative because Jobs takes major risks, which is rare in corporate America. He doesn’t market-test anything. It’s all his own judgment and perfectionism and gut.”

There was a heavy price to pay for Jobs's stubborn genius in going in a different direction from everyone else and doing something so much harder, if ultimately so much more productive and creative and rewarding and important, than just building PCs. The price was that for decades, as Microsoft took command of the world of business and workplace computing that was the foundation of the PC industry, most people saw Apple as a maker of overpriced, prettified luxury goods that lacked some of the core functionality of PCs and PC-based devices. The company barely survived, and Jobs had to pass his time in exile. But by the last couple of years, when Apple first passed Microsoft in market capitalization and then briefly became the richest company on earth, all that was long forgotten.

We are very lucky that we've had Steve Jobs long enough to make all this happen, through so many generations of new ideas and expansion of what he saw from the very beginning. We are lucky to have had him at all, but as tragic as the present moment is, the fact that he could do so many brilliant things, one after another, for so long, is almost a miracle.

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