iCon: The Greatest Second Act In The History Of Business
Earlier this year Steve Jobs had a liver transplant and the world is faced with the prospect that his life will eventually come to an end. When a man is as young as Jobs is questions of death are rarely raised but the seriousness of his illness and his unique role in the digital revolution that we are all experiencing brings attention to the details of his life into sharp focus.
I find Steve Jobs a fascinating character and because I love computers I regard him as an incredibly important man. He is a very flawed human being by all accounts and yet is role in computing is so essential that it could be argued that computers would not be the ubiquitous devices in everyones homes that they are today if not for Jobs. He is the person who changed their development from being the toy of engineers and turned it into the first real personal computer as we know it today.
It might have been Steve Wozniak who was the engineering genius who designed the circuitry and programming for the first Apple computer but if that was all that happened it would be nothing special. There were many brilliant minds in Silicon Valley who had the desire and ability to make circuit boards for computers that anyone (not just universities and government departments) could buy. But none of then, Wozniak included, saw much beyond the circuits and geek talk.
Alan Turing had done the math for the first computer algorithm back in 1936 making him the father of all electronic computers but they remained huge and inefficient machines until the transistor and the integrated circuit enabled miniaturization in the 1960's. The first personal computer was the Micral in 1972 and several others followed over the next few years. Problem was that all these computers required expert knowledge. The computer was just a collection of components and the user had to use a soldering iron and screwdrivers to assemble the machine. Then the software had to be installed into the machine every time it was turned on. No wonder people had to be very enthusiastic to use one. It probably helped to be a genius like Wozniak.
But then Steve Jobs came along. He didn't know much about circuits or software. He was a college dropout who had studied Zen and calligraphy. He had a vision which was that a computer had to be something different to what it had been up until then. It had to be able to be operated by ordinary people without a degree in computer programming. It needed to be fully assembled when bought - you should be able to just plug it in. It needed and operating system that stayed in the computer memory. It needed a television screen so graphics could be seen (previous microcomputers relied on flashing lights) and it needed a mouse to make it easier to control. Wozniak apparently didn't agree but Jobs was insistent and so he drove Wozniac to make computers the way Jobs wanted them to be made. The Micral may well be the first personal computer but it was the Apple was the first one that you and I would recognize as being one. The modern personal computer market was born. And it was Steve Jobs who envisioned it in a realistic way and made it happen.
Jobs next turned his attention to digital animation, Pixar and eventually being "bought" by Disney and in the process becoming its largest shareholder. Movies like Toy Story 1 and 2, Bugs Life, and Monsters Inc became the number 1, 2, 3, and 4th biggest earning animated movies of all time. Toy Story 1 on its own earned 450 million dollars. Pixar was all of a suddenly the most important studio in Hollywood and when Disney "bought" it it was a matter of buy it now or wait and get swallowed by it. I use the quote marks around the word bought because even though it was technically a purchase by Disney in fact the Pixar animation studio replaced Disney 's own animation studio and Steve Jobs became the largest shareholder and a Director of the company. It was Pixar that made Steve Jobs a multi-billionaire and proved that his early success with the Apple computer was no fluke.
Steve Jobs is reputed to have purchased the computer division of Lucas films which he would morph into Pixar for only 10 million dollars in 1986 and even though he pumped millions of his own capital into the company in its early years to a point where he was down to his last 25 million and considering closing the company before he went broke but then their first movie Toy Story was released and the cash flow reversed. When he sold to Disney in 2006 he sold for 7.4 billion dollars but on top of that Pixar had already earned 3.2 billion in movie sales up to that time with almost 900 million coming from Finding Nemo alone with the movie becoming the biggest selling dvd of all time. No wonder Steve Jobs is regarded as having the golden touch.
He was invited back to Apple to "rescue" it. Apple was in trouble. The company lacked the visionary leader it had started with after Jobs had lost his position as CEO of Apple in 1985 and it started to make products that either lacked the innovativeness of the earlier product or (like the Newton) were too advanced and expensive for the time. They just couldn't get it right and lost ground to Bill Gates Windows on PC's. Jobs came back and said he would work for just a dollar a year (he still does but his stock is worth billions). Of course he did earn money from it in another way. While he was away from Apple he started NeXT which developed innovative computers and an operating system which Jobs sold to Apple and which then morphed into Mac OS X.
Back at the head of Apple he personally drove the development of the iPod and iTunes which has overturned the recording industry and now iTunes is the largest seller of music in existence. Next came the iPhone which has become the fastest selling electronic device in history and looks set to repeat the success of the iPod and is in the process of revolutionizing the humble phone by turning it into a miniature computer.
Few business people have changed the way we live our lives as much as Steve Jobs has just by selling a product, and even fewer have been so revolutionary across so many different industries. This book acknowledges the great achievement but also points out the human failings and highlights the question so many people have asked - does someone need to be so ruthless and difficult to deal with as a human being as Steve Jobs is reported to be in order to achieve great things? Would a nicer human being do as much or more. Indeed the question needs to be asked that in light of the self destructive aspects of his personality that at one time cost him control of Apple, would Steve Jobs achieved more if he were a nicer human being? It is impossible to know the answer to that question. The world is full of great achievers who were also flawed, and great good often seems to be the flip side of a coin with great evil on the other side.
This is why I am finding this biography of Steve Jobs so fascinating. It is not a perfect nor definitive biography by any means but it is easy to read and provides some interesting insight into a man I admire very much for his vision and perfectionism. Jobs insists to his engineers that the interior of a Macintosh has to be beautiful and engineers wonder why make beautiful something that the buyer will never see. I can't help but appreciate a mind driven to perfecting every detail - even the ones I can't see.
I am enjoying the book.
TIMES article on Steve Jobs published Sunday August 2009 and which has gained notoriety because apparently Apple did not want it to be published and below is a CNet article with an alternative point of view: