Credit: Matthew Yohe, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
The last day or two have definitely been heavy with links, quotes, rememberances and opinions following the death of Steve Jobs.
Headline writers (and social networkers) have been working overtime to get the best, or worst – depending on your perspective – one-liners out there like “Jobs goes to the iCloud” or the particularly nauseating “The iPhone 4S is ‘4 Steve’.” Nobody on the Internet could claim that sycophancy is a dead art.
The headlines and stories that have me most confused though are the ones saying what a great inventor he was. I mean, was he? Really?
I’ve read or been told by others in the last 36 hours that Steve jobs invented and/or designed:
- the original Apple computer
- the iPod
- the iMac
- the MacBook
- the iPhone
- the iPad
- the computer mouse
That’s pretty impressive! Well, except he didn’t really, did he? The Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field continues even after his death!
For example, the first Apple computers were “invented” (designed and engineered) entirely by Steve Wozniak; he even handed out schematics at the Homebrew Computer Club. Steve Jobs’ genius was to realize that people were taking the schematics but not actually building the computer – there was a need for somebody to do the hard work, and that if they did, there was a market for the completed Apple computer. And so they started a company and Steve Jobs went off to sell the computer to whoever he could (and did very well at it).
The iMac, iPod, MacBook Air and more are beautiful products, but Steve didn’t “invent” them; rather, Jony Ive led the design team that created these amazing forms. Steve Jobs surely didn’t ‘invent’ the electronics inside. Did Jobs determine the need for those exact products? I’m not sure – or if he did, how much of the design was Jony Ive implementing Steve’s specifications, and how much was Steve saying “I need something cool looking, all in one, with a handle on the top” and Jony Ive coming back with the design icon that is the iMac.
By his own admission, Jobs was not an Engineer; he was a great marketer, he had a great understanding of manufacturing, he had the ability to see markets that didn’t yet exist, and he had an obsessive desire to make every product perfect from the way it was made, to the way the box opened, to the way the product’s parts joined together. Laudable skills, but does that amount to inventing?
As for the computer mouse, well that’s pretty much folklore now. The honor of inventing the pointing device goes to the brainiacs at Xerox Parc who were utterly amazing people working for a company that on one hand showed incredible foresight by funding a melting pot of technical excellence, and on the other hand hamstrung the self same employees by having no clue how to spot good ideas and do something with them unless they directly impacted their copier business. I’m generalizing here of course, but it’s not so far from the truth I understand. And based on what I’ve read about Parc, be thankful Jobs saw the potential in the whole mouse/GUI concept and ran with it because it’s largely why you’re using the computer you have now.
I view Steve Jobs more like an awesome orchestral conductor. He is (was) great at identifying the very best musicians to play in “his” orchestra – even finding previously unknown virtuosi who didn’t have much performing experience – and he inspires them to perform at levels they had not considered possible. He’ll costume them meticulously, arrange the concert hall environment to perfection, personally supervise the content of the program booklet, market the event to make it “cool” for people to attend an orchestral concert, and ensure a fabulous experience for the audience, all while the orchestra is playing a new kind of music that nobody had any idea they were going to like. He’s a bit shouty sometimes, but most people stay around anyway because they love performing at that level.
He’s a musical genius! But he doesn’t play an instrument.
Oh, and once in a while he might visit another orchestra to see if they’re playing music he thinks his orchestra can play better than they can. And if all that isn’t enough, he also conducts a jazz band over at Pixar – he’s a busy guy.
Inventor? That’s a tough call. Visionary, inspiring, and a strong leader? Without question. Will he – and his impact on the products we all use – be missed? Hell yes.
Rest In Peace, Steve.