Richard DeMillo, author of Abelard to Apple, reflects on Steve Jobs' impact on the computing world.
There are already hundreds of thousands of sincere words of praise for Steve Jobs, his career, his style, and the profound—and sometimes emotional—impact that his products had on the world. I am more pessimistic.
His greatest gift, wrapped in ribbons and left on corporate doorsteps, will probably remain unopened by a new generation of general managers who seem destined to apply, as if by rote formula, rules for managing haberdasheries and computer companies alike. Jobs was not that kind of executive.
It’s a good thing too, because when he took over the reins of Apple Computer it had been in the hands of general managers for quite awhile. Apple was the most inefficient company in the industry. It carried, for example, an appalling 70 days of inventory. By 2000, when Apple’s creative bursts began in earnest, Apple carried less than one day of inventory and was among the most efficient manufacturing companies in the world.
Steve Jobs violated axioms and experimented with the consequences on a scale unheard of in modern business. An urban myth has arisen that he always knew what he was doing. In truth, he failed as often as he succeeded. Apple fired him for being a loose cannon. Both of his subsequent ventures were forced to close their hardware businesses. But like all experiments in the hands of genius, the failures had infinite value.
I was at HP when Jobs’ most remarkable experiments took place – when axioms were violated. Most of us believed that you had to design computers from the inside out. Apple not only rejected that but also guessed that the public would understand a music player like an iPod™ better than a handheld computer like a Jornada™. HP eventually gave up and even tried selling iPods for a while. Until iTunes came along, it was just assumed that computer companies couldn’t sell content like music and movies. When the first Apple stores opened in 2001, I wrote an internal memo explaining with charts and graphs what a bad idea it was for a computer company to run a retail store. What none of us knew was that Jobs was already experimenting with what it meant to be a computer company.
Steve Jobs famously said in a 1998 interview that “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” The same is true for history’s great experimenters. It would be ironic if the rest of the industry ended up stealing from him, but I am not optimistic that will happen.