Steve Jobs (1955–2011)

The day Steve Jobs announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Apple on August 25, 2011, David Pogue of the New York Times said of him:

His personality made Apple Apple. That’s why no other company has ever been able to duplicate Apple’s success. Even when Microsoft or Google or Hewlett-Packard tried to mimic Apple’s every move, run its designs through the corporate copying machine, they never succeeded. And that’s because they never had such a single, razor-focused, deeply opinionated, micromanaging, uncompromising, charismatic, persuasive, mind-blowingly visionary leader.

Pundits immediately asked whether Apple could maintain the same levels of unprecedented inventive and financial success without Jobs’s leadership. Jobs died on October 5, 2011, of the pancreatic cancer that had caused him to resign, one day after the company’s first major product announcement without him. The world’s broadcast, digital, and print media were immediately overwhelmed with encomiums to the man and his achievements. He was called the best CEO of the past 50—perhaps 100—years by Google chairman, Eric Schmidt.

Jobs’s list of accomplishments began when he was just 21 with the introduction of the Apple computer, which was followed by the breakthrough Macintosh and more recently the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Joe Nocera of the New York Times called them “more than devices. They were objects of lust.”

Beyond creating products that reoriented the computer and cell phone industries, Jobs revolutionized recorded music through iTunes, which allowed inexpensive online delivery of music as an alternative to piracy and led to the decline of the CD. He played a major role in Pixar’s transformation of the methods for creating animated films, initiated with the Academy Award–winning Toy Story in 1995.

In all his projects, he was known as obsessive in his focus on aesthetic design and attention to detail to enhance the user’s experience. Even though he was accused of micromanaging during his lean years, most came to value his outlook as essential to the success of his products. He had a role in everything from the design of packaging to the look of the Apple Store. The Museum of Modern Art holds 25 Apple products in its design collection.

Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple Computer and the innovative creator of the Macintosh computer

Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple Computer and the innovative creator of the Macintosh computer, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, devices that have revolutionized the way Americans communicate and interact with information. (Apple Computer, Inc.)

Jobs is credited as the inventor or coinventor in 338 U.S. patents or patent applications. Even though he earned only $1 a year as Apple CEO, his ownership of Apple and Disney stock gave him an estimated 2010 wealth of $8.3 billion, causing Forbes magazine to list him as the 42nd wealthiest American at the time. Apple’s iPad tablet, now in its third generation, is currently outselling the number of personal computers being sold by any manufacturer; Apple has sold 58 million iPads since they were first introduced in 2010. Revenue from iPad sales and from the iPhone, now in its fourth generation, has made Apple “the most valuable company in the world, with a market capitalization of almost a half-trillion dollars, well ahead of its nearest rival, Exxon Mobil,” according to a report in the New York Times on the occasion of Apple’s introduction of the third version of the iPad on March 7, 2012.

Jobs began his computer career after dropping out of Reed College and quitting a position as a video game designer at Atari, and after travel to India, an experience that contributed to his conversion to Buddhism. He and Steve Wozniak, a school friend and computer engineer, created the first small, accessible, and inexpensive personal computers, the Apple I in 1976 and three years later the Apple II. They are credited with revolutionizing the industry by offering a true user-friendly personal computer.

Selling for $666.66, Apple I sales totaled $774,000, but the Apple II increased revenue 700 percent to $139 million because it offered color graphics, expansion slots, and primarily the ability to run VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet that made the devices so valuable to business. The company went public in 1980 and achieved a market value of $1.2 billion on the first day of trading. That year Jobs brought in a marketing expert, John Scully of Pepsi-Cola, as president.

The Macintosh computer was released to great fanfare in 1984 with a famous Super Bowl commercial that alluded to the George Orwell novel and depicted a female runner who carried a large hammer breaking free of the Big Brother enslavement of the unnamed but implied IBM personal computer. Despite the success of the commercial and the praise of its design, the Macintosh could not compete with IBM, which dominated business computing, because their operating systems were not compatible.

A series of disappointments soured the relationship between Jobs and Scully, leading Apple’s board to relieve Jobs of his operating responsibilities when it reorganized the company in May 1985. Sales of the Macintosh computer, introduced the year before, were very disappointing, far below expectations. The company was facing the first financial loss in its history. Jobs resigned from Apple in September of that year to start a new computer company call NeXT aimed at producing a computer adapted to the special needs of higher education.

He spent the next 12 years at NeXT in what was a period of failed expectations and flawed business decisions. When released to the market in 1988, the computer cost $6,500, plus another $2,000 for its printer, compared to the discounted educational price of $1,000 for a Macintosh. Academic budgets could not afford it, and after selling only 50,000 units in the following seven years, Jobs ended production.

While a commercial disaster, NeXT ended up as a technological success in the design of its UNIX-based software that became the source of the Macintosh’s new operating system, Mac OS X. While at NeXT, Jobs also made his very successful investment in Pixar, an initially struggling company that he eventually sold to Disney for $7.4 billion. NeXT was sold to Apple in 1996 for $429 million, and Jobs was brought back to the company as temporary de facto chief and in 1997 formally chief executive.

The relationship of Jobs and Apple mirrors mythic patterns from rise to fall to triumphant return. After his return, Jobs also took a company many considered as economically moribund, possibility doomed, and made it at the time of his retirement announcement Exxon’s competitor for the prestige of being the world’s wealthiest corporation. Measured quantitatively by stock value, the final decade of Jobs’s leadership had been a phenomenon. In 10 years, he took the value of the company from $9 a share to $376 on the day he stepped down. As Business Week noted just hours after Jobs’s death, “Apple’s stock price has risen more than 9,000 percent since Jobs returned to the company in 1997.” Qualitatively, Apple’s recent innovations changed the nature of computing from a machine on a desktop to a device that fits into the palm of a hand.

Jobs’s return to the leadership of Apple resulted in innovations that exceeded all expectations. Yet, ironically, at the height of his success and adulation by Apple devotees, he suffered severe medical problems, first surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004 and a liver transplant in early 2009, debilitations that led him to give up the leadership of his company and resulted in his death.

The details of Jobs’s personal life have not been widely known, and he made efforts to maintain privacy. He was born on February 24, 1955, to parents who were, at the time, graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, Joanne Schieble and Abdulfattah “John” Jandali from Syria, who became a professor of political science. They gave him up for adoption before he had a name, and Jobs was unable to discover the details of his biological parentage until he was 27. He was named Steven Paul Jobs by his adoptive parents, Clara and Paul Jobs. His mother worked as an accountant, and his father was a Coast Guard veteran and machinist who introduced Jobs to electronics through experiments in the family garage, the same garage where the Apple computer was created.

Jobs’s biological parents did marry after the death of Joanne Schieble’s father, who had opposed the marriage. They had a second child, the novelist Mona Simpson, who took the name of her stepfather, her mother’s second husband. Simpson’s novel A Regular Guy features a character much like Jobs in an unflattering portrait. Yet the siblings became very close and were in frequent contact.

When he was 23, Jobs and Chrisann Brennan, an artist, had a daughter, Lisa, whose parentage he initially denied for seven years. However, she came to live with him as a teenager. He married Laurene Powell on March 18, 1991, and fathered a son and two daughters. They lived in Palo Alto, California.

Jobs has been compared with Thomas A. Edison as an archetypal American inventor, a man whose innovations revolutionized a society. In many ways, that linking is an exaggeration. Edison, in devising the phonograph, a functional electric light bulb, and the motion picture camera, brought fundamental changes to American and world society—the ability to overcome darkness with electrical illumination and to record and preserve sound and movement. Jobs enhanced existing technologies with results that transformed the ways in which people interact with devices and information and also produced major effects on a number of businesses.

Rather than the link to Edison, a more relevant comparison may be with Microsoft’s Bill Gates, a man of the same generation, also born in 1955 and also essential to the computer revolution. The two men and their companies have been considered major competitors by industry watchers. Yet they followed very different business models and lived very different personal lives. Still their ascendancy made them contrasting heroes and villains to many. Ironically, those roles shifted with the fortunes of their companies, the greater the success, the more the criticism of the man.

In many ways, Gates deserves credit for the ubiquity of the computer in our lives. He organized the development of the operating systems—from MS-DOS to Windows—that made computers more functional and allowed the products of different manufacturers to interact. But those in the field criticized his programs for their cumbersome coding, their propensity to crashes, and their vulnerability to viruses. Microsoft was attacked for predatory practices, using its wealth and power to put smaller companies out of business by offering for free what others had to charge for. Yet it kept accumulating profits by licensing its programs to computer makers through the world, to the point where more than 80 percent of all computers run on Microsoft software.

Apple, on the other hand, created its own hardware as well as operating software that differed greatly from that of Microsoft. A more important difference—except for one brief attempt—was the decision not to license its software to other manufacturers. Those in the field agreed that the Apple system and equipment were more elegant, trouble-free, and easier to use. At the same time, Apple computers were more expensive and, more significantly, for many years did not interact smoothly with the great majority of Microsoft-based computers. Apple served a niche market, appealing especially to those who worked on graphic design and layout. But business and education in general found Apple too specialized for adoption.

Microsoft tacitly admitted that Apple technology was superior, developing its own software to emulate Apple features. For example, Apple was first with the mouse and a graphic user interface (GUI), substituting clicking on an icon for several steps of keyboard combinations. Microsoft devised the first Windows software to compete, and since then has kept up with, and in some cases surpassed, the latest Apple features.

It has been the iPod, then the iPhone and iPad that converted large numbers of people to become Apple believers. They liked the designs, the quality, and the ease of operation. When Apple opened Apple stores, they flocked to sample the equipment and be served by a friendly, knowledgeable staff. Those stores have in themselves become models for retail operations. Apple computers still are a minority of those sold today, just 10 percent of the U.S. market. The company makes most of its profits from iPhones and iPads, for example, selling 20.34 million iPhones and 9.25 million iPads as compared to 3.95 million Macs in the quarter reported in the company’s July 19, 2011, report.

In one of his last public appearances as Apple’s CEO to announce a pending new operating system for the company’s portable devices and its new approach to cloud computing, the iCloud, Jobs predicted the demise of the computer as a dominant force. The cloud, versions of which already are available, enables people to store music, video, and data files on distant servers rather than personal computers. All of this information becomes accessible on multiple portable devices. Again, Apple took the lead in a direction for computing that may result in a fundamentally new way of interaction the way the iPod did with recorded music.

But as Apple rose from an orphaned favorite of technological purists to dominance, wealth, and power, attacks on Steve Jobs has accelerated. For years, Bill Gates was castigated for his great wealth, excessive mansion, bland personality, and roughshod tactics. But now that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers grants from the couple’s billions to fight disease and further throughout the world, Gates is no longer disdained.

Apple and Jobs exchanged places for the critics, Jobs seen as domineering for his rigidity in keeping Apple a “closed” company. Its software codes are tightly guarded. Those who revealed photos and details about a found iPhone prototype were sued and lost the case. Apps proposed by the iPhone and iPad are carefully screened before their sales are allowed. Yet, on the days after his death, only the voices of praise for Jobs were heard.

Whenever the future for the Apple Steve Jobs has created, his creativity already has been transformative in setting new standards and making possible the existence of new devices for information and entertainment.

One researcher even argues that iPhones have become objects of love rather than addiction. Martin Lindstrom, an expert on consumer behavior, gave subjects functional magnetic resonance imaging tests to measure their brain activity as they were shown images of products like iPhone and also religious images such as rosary beads. He found “uncannily similar” brain activity: “In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.”

If Lindstrom is correct, Steve Jobs is responsible for an unprecedented achievement in American life.

—Walter Cummins


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Lindstrom, Martin. “You Love Your iPhone, Literally.” New York Times, October 1, 2011, A21.

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Stross, Randall. “What Steve Jobs Learned in the Wilderness.” .

Wingfield, Nick. “Apple Adds Sharper Screen and Speed to New iPad.” The New York Times, March 8, 2012, B1.