Steve Jobs, influencer extraordinary

The news of Steve Jobs’s death reached me on the early morning news today. Not exactly unexpected, I guess, since his sudden stepping down a couple of months ago. And I offered a note about that at the time.

I never met Jobs, nor even saw him on stage except through online video. But I’ve been in his debt for over 20 years since I encountered my first Mac computer, working in BP Research’s IT Research Unit, several years before DOS evolved into Windows. I remained, and still am, a Mac user for preference though with many years of Windows experience now. And I did visit Cupertino on a research mission shortly after joining SmithKline Beecham a handful of years later – at the time when Apple’s Taligent was supposed to be the last word in application architecture.

There will be many tributes and a lot of reports, posts and other content rehearsing Steve Jobs’s enormous contribution to creative technology evolution. I don’t propose to add to that; I don’t have the first hand knowledge, except as a long time user.

Apple’s own tributes so far are muted; his picture is alone on the home page, and there are very brief statements from the press office and the Board. An online “book of condolence” has been opened, for anyone to share thoughts.

When I visited Cupertino, Apple was losing its way. It was being squeezed out of the corporate domain because Windows was more directly accessible to developers, and there was a far wider range of enterprise software available for it; and because the variety of competing manufacturers resulted in lower hardware costs: critical mass had been reached. Microsoft Office was a Mac application first, reaching version 5 on the Mac while it was still at 2 on Windows; but it became the archetypal Windows application. It was easy to connect a couple of Macs together: networking was built in from the start: and it’s still (in my opinion!) easier with MacOS than Windows. Networking was grafted on to Windows after the fact, and perhaps some of the compromises are still with us.

But what’s important for Apple now is that, when Jobs returned to the company, he didn’t carry on fighting that battle. For the Mac itself, I’ve always admired the progression of the long term strategy towards the Intel platform: first, reinvent MacOS on its Unix base; then, transfer seamlessly to less proprietary hardware. And there were other moves away from proprietary: adoption of Ethernet and USB in place of Appletalk and the Apple Desktop Bus helped drive the adoption of those standards as well as giving Apple users early access to the new ranges of peripherals.

Alongside this, Jobs moved Apple in a different direction: with enormous success. And in the corporate space, he turned the tables. The story now is that the iPad – still highly proprietary, still different to the Windows world – is taking the enterprise by storm, and is finally persuading (forcing?) enterprise IT to develop different, more open, enabling architectures to replace the uniform Windows environment. Which was always an illusion anyway!

One thing strikes me beyond this, which is relevant to enterprise IT and those of us who work in that space. It’s a given, these days, that we need to know what our customers want and be in a position to provide it. Jobs’s Apple went beyond that. They identified what the customers didn’t know they wanted, and provided it! In that world, you make some mistakes, and Apple has missed some targets. But business is about taking that sort of risk, and Apple’s risks have paid off handsomely.

Steve Jobs was a one-off. Thankyou.

• Remembering Steve Jobs: online thoughts at (contributions via email link)
• Statement by Apple’s Board of Directors, 5 Oct 2011
• Employee letter from Tim Cook, CEO, Apple Media Advisory, 5 Oct 2011
• Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder, Dies at 56, Technorati, 5 Oct 2011
• Reprise: Apple after Jobs, ITasITis, 25 Aug 2011
• Steve Jobs (1955-2011): statement from Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, 5 Oct 2011
• Wikipedia on Taligent [not to be confused with the currently active company of the same name)


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