Apple and Jobs

2009

Bill Gates was at the right place at the right time. He made a lot of money, but didn’t create anything I consider wonderful. Gates is a CEO widget. His edge over the other CEO widgets is his extreme smarts and his predatory bent. Business is war and Gates is a hard-nosed general. Steve Jobs is more. Jobs was the right person at the right place at the right time. He made a lot of money and created some insanely great stuff. Jobs is named on over 300 patents. Patent troll Gates has only a tenth of that.

I think of Jobs because he is in the news these days. Apple’s stock price has taken another hit on speculation regarding his health. Ordinarily, one might consider this the expected Wall Street overreaction. But Apple is Jobs. He is the antithesis of a CEO widget. Prickly, ornery, overbearing, not much fun to work for (from all reports), his genius was creating products to enhance our lives, stoking consumer desire for these products, and creating retail outlets geared to satisfy those desires. Apple created brilliant products on his watch. Even his mistakes were successful, just not insanely great.

After Jobs was relieved of command in the 1980s, Apple experienced a string of interchangeable CEO widgets, the Pepsi guy, the silicon guy, weren’t there others? None of them knew from products. Meanwhile, Jobs had honed his CEO skills and developed a taste for corporate leadership while away from Apple. When Jobs returned to Apple, he took over an enterprise teetering on the brink, directionless.

Jobs played the white knight as well as it can be played. He focused Apple, laser-like; he killed the clones, killed the 3rd party retailers, and, spurning Gassée’s advances, pulled a new Mac operating system out of a hat (actually he had developed it while he was away from Apple). What a thing of beauty, the transition to OS X.

Having saved the Mac platform, Jobs opened the Apple stores, proving to be the coolest retail outlets on the planet, from which Apple sells all those sexy aluminum computers and the bigger-than-life Cinema displays. Then came the smooth switch to the Intel platform, because IBM no longer had time for Apple’s small G5 volumes, and the Intel product development path was richer. Then came something completely different from his magic wand, iPod and iTunes. And then came the insanely great iPhone. And lots of new software applications.

Macintosh market share is growing after years of collapse. He took Apple stock from $12 to $200. And, he pays himself $1/annum (his compensation up until recently has consisted entirely of restricted shares of Apple stock, worth perhaps $1 billion at Apple’s highest price). Jobs was willing to bet on his performance. And his performance has made him insanely rich. My only wish for Jobs is to wage the battle in an open and fair manner going forward. With great success may come an arrogance and sense of entitlement that will cast shadows over the brand, and that would sadden a lot of supporters.

I also think of Jobs when I see those Detroit auto CEO widgets crawling, hat in hand, to Congress for a bailout, trying desperately to disguise their $20 million salaries. What GM needs is a Steve Jobs clone, one whose passion for automotive excellence and insight for evolving markets will take the enterprise higher than it has ever been. Meanwhile, Apple still has its knight. Be well, Mr. Jobs.

Addendum: It is now October 2011 and Apple has just lost its knight. Apple rose to new heights on his watch, briefly reaching the title as America’s most valuable company (~$350B) in a neck-and-neck battle with Exxon-Mobil, this after being valued as roadkill roughly a decade before. Mr. Jobs has left behind an archetype product set and a well-oiled organization to carry the Apple brand forward. Not many new management teams have such a cynosure to reckon by. Just follow that star.

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