Friday, August 26, 2011

Steve Jobs, An Appreciation

Steve Jobs changed our world, and his genius deserves a celebration. He gave us hardware that is a joy to hold in one’s hand, run by software that is a joy to use and wrapped in packaging that is a joy to open. Worldwide joy would be an appropriate expression of gratitude, were it not for his failing health.

As many serious analysts, Apple, and Steve Jobs himself have pointed out, Apple has a very deep bench and a long product pipeline. It has attracted great scientists, engineers, designers, and business people. Even its innovation pipeline is innovative: the App store will bring innovation to Apple doorstep for years to come. For all these reasons, Apple seems prepared for business with Steve Jobs as a “mere” Chairman of the Board now and without Steve Jobs in the future.

All protestations aside, the character of Apple will change. Gradually. It could be for the better. Odds are it will be for the worse. In fact, we have seen such a movie before. I remember unwrapping my first programmable calculator in the seventies. It was an HP 45C. You had to feel the perfection of the buttons. The oh-so-logical reverse Polish notation got the job done twice as fast. The quality was nothing short of amazing. My HP 45C was still working flawlessly thirty years later. Then, tucked away in the back of a desk drawer unused but still loved, a battery leaked. Over time, HP became passionless, produced commodity items, and provided commodity services. Under the disastrous Carly Fiorina, “the HP way” became a four-letter word, product innovation was an empty marketing concept, and financial engineering took center stage.

Yesterday, I went to Best Buy to re-verify something. The bottoms of most Windows notebooks are plastered with stickers and printed text. The keyboards are sold-out advertizing venues. Apple notebooks are pristine, except for four lines of barely distinguishable grey text on the aluminum body. How many lawyers, marketing people, committees, suppliers, and others did Steve Jobs have to overrule just for beauty? How come others did not adopt this simple idea?

Business leaders may point to Steve Jobs to justify any control-freak tendency. Without the kind of genius that it takes, they are bound to fail, and they are probably better off in the mediocrity-guaranteeing committee-driven world of conventional business. I have a suggestion for them. In one fell swoop they can accomplish three things: They can, in their own minds, equate themselves with Steve Jobs. They can satisfy their cravings for control. And, they can provide a valuable service: Get rid of ugly stickers and ridiculous warning labels.