Steve Jobs: This American life

WELLS: It wasn’t virtue Jobs was trying to spread, it was competence and ingenuity

The question before the house now, or one of them, is whether Steve Jobs was an innovator. It’s easy to come up with perfectly fair definitions of the term that leave him offside. The mouse and the graphic user interface came from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Music downloading was huge before he ever did it, or at least it seemed huge before he changed the scale on which the word is understood. I remember taking my first iPod to a computer store where one of the geeks showed me how to pry the back off. The magic came off with it. Just a thin battery, a thin hard drive, and a circuit board. Anybody could do it. Many already had.

So if innovation means being the very first, count Jobs out. There’s actually a parallel argument in jazz music, if you can believe it, where people have spent 30 years debating whether Miles Davis innovated anything. The obvious answer is that, if innovating means being very first, he didn’t. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie showed him how to play bebop. Lester Young was stripping ornament from his solo lines when Miles was in short pants. And so on. But Miles heard new currents, found ways to make them consistent with his own aesthetic, and presented them in ways a general audience could grasp and then love. And then he did it again and again. If an innovator is a conduit between an idea and all its possible audiences, then both of these guys were at the heart of that game.

Very early on, Apple got in the habit of producing products that weren’t particularly impressive in their technical specs but inspired loyalty with an appeal to intangibles. The Apple II+ wasn’t particularly a smarter or faster beast than the TRS-80 or the Commodore Pet or the other dinosaurs of the silicon swamps at the dawn of the 1980s. But it looked (a tad) more elegant, and its top was connected with nothing more than velcro strips so you could get at the crazy number of expansion slots — eight, I think — that made even that paleolithic machine open to easy, radical customization.

Those were key elements of the Jobs style: aesthetic grace and heaps of flexibility. A third element was apparent soon after: a deep urge to simplify, often beyond reason. The first Macintosh keyboard had no numerical keypad, even though keypads are actually pretty useful. The first iPod had fewer controls than it should have had. Jobs’s mouse had one button when the rest of the industry was using two or even three. Those extra mouse buttons were really handy. Almost always Jobs would un-simplify his products as he went along. But that urge to strip to the bone matched the intuition of millions of consumers, who were sure that if a machine is as smart as advertised, it should not need a human to do all the work.

Jobs screwed up a lot. He made dud products (Apple I, Lisa) and dud applications (Hypercard, [Update: that one happened while he was off the Apple payroll — pw] Mobile Me). He managed to get himself fired by the company he founded; there’s a movie, a Russian novel, in the way he schemed his way back in. If he hadn’t he’d be a footnote. His greatest triumphs came near the end of his life: the iPhone in 2007, the iPad in 2010 — together worth three-quarters of the whole company’s sales last quarter — the very late-breaking market-share growth of Apple laptops and desktops. In the last few months of Jobs’s life, his company became the biggest in the world. There’s been no comeback like it.

One more lesson from Miles Davis: there is no need to confuse effectiveness with virtue when taking the measure of a man. Jobs seems to have been a fine fellow, but it wasn’t virtue he was trying to spread, it was competence and ingenuity. Virtue was one of the things his customers could do with his stuff, if they liked. It came from them, not from him. Jobs didn’t lead so much as listen, refine, extend, echo, and repeat. He amplified human potential. Not a bad life’s work.

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