Measuring Steve Jobs’s greatness

By Joydeep Mukherjee

The global mourning over Steve Jobs’s death has made it abundantly clear that the man was respected not only in his home country, but in all parts of the world. Seldom has the world seen such a huge public outpour of grief in recent history, perhaps barring the death of Princess Diana in 1997 (incidentally also the year when Jobs was brought back to Apple for a second term when the company was on the brink of a gigantic collapse). Tributes were paid in many forms– half-bitten apples were left in front of Apple stores, virtual candles were lit on iPads and iPhones, the Apple logo was reformed to accommodate his silhouette and even flags were kept at half mast in some corporate headquarters.

Eulogies from the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Salman Rushdie and Rupert Murdoch were concise and sincere. Some like Steven Spielberg went a little over the top, going so far as to say that Jobs was the greatest inventor since Thomas Edison. If one were to listen to sensible people from different corners of the planet, it could be unequivocally agreed upon that Steve Jobs was not only a marketing genius and an astute businessman, but also a person who changed the world to make it a better place.

After the initial dust has settled in, it might be a good idea to take a closer look at Jobs and his achievements. Who was Steve Jobs, exactly? Among the vast number of accolades showered upon him after his death, the term ‘visionary’ perhaps suits him best (as correctly pointed out by Stephen Fry, an ardent Apple fanboy and Jobs admirer). Steve Jobs was neither a scientist, nor a computer programmer or a mathematician or an artist or a humanitarian or a philosopher. So what was he, exactly? And how did he change the world to make it a better place? Is his greatness solely based on his accumulated wealth? Or is it that the collective voices of his mindless followers have stifled the objection of a saner minority who believe that Jobs was no more than a glorified toymaker who parted millions of fools with their money? Has our youth chosen the icon of their generation carefully? Or is it just another one of those mindless media-created hyperbole, and ‘this too shall pass’?

In the 1970s, Jobs was among the first to envision the concept of personal computers. He may not have been the first person to think of it, but he was certainly the first to visualize that desktop computers, the use of which was limited to scientists and researchers until then, could be re-designed so that they could be used by everyone. This idea eventually led to the birth of Apple II, which was the first personal computer to be manufactured on a large scale. It was beautifully designed, with a graphical interface (first use of desktop icons, and mouse support) instead of a text interface– features which helped ordinary people interact with computers seamlessly. In the ’80s, Apple introduced the Macintosh operating system with a wonderful graphical interface (he mentions this in his Stanford speech where he speaks about putting his calligraphy course into practical use). These two products cemented the foundation of personal computers in the market, and Steve Jobs should be praised for that.

Another big achievement of Jobs was to transform the Pixar Animation Studio into what it is today. Some of the best animation movies of all times (Toy Story, Monster Inc., Up, A Bug’s Life, etc.) were produced by Pixar. As an admirer of animation movies, I can’t thank Jobs enough for this. When he returned to Apple in 1997, Apple was on the brink of a disaster. Jobs planned to turn the company on its feet by introducing a couple of products which would go on to revolutionize their respective industries. The first was the iPod, followed by the iPhone and finally, the iPad. The iPod marked the beginning of the line of products that had Jobs’s design motto firmly sketched on them. It wasn’t the only mp3 player available in the market, but so grand was its design, style and performance that it outperformed every other music player in the market. Add Jobs’s outstanding marketing policy coupled with his extraordinary ability to read the market, and Apple was on its way to become the most admired company in America. To understand Jobs’s brilliance, you have to look at the line of products that came out next. The Macbooks, iPhones and iPads were all designed with obsessive attention to design and style, a trait Jobs was famously known for among Apple employees.

For a man without any conventional educational background, Jobs had an amazing intuition for predicting successful technological trends. He was, so to speak, a computer geek. The NeXT series of computers was built on unix, an operating system designed to support networking the best. While none of these devices seem to be of world-changing stature, it is important to understand that Jobs was trying to create a line of next-generation products which would make it simpler for ordinary people to handle technology at its basic level. In other words, through his minimalistic design style and interface, Jobs was bridging the gap between humans and technology, although he wasn’t making it any cheaper. His detractors have often questioned the exorbitant prices of Apple products, and quite fittingly so, for this is one aspect Jobs overlooked.

One reason as to why Jobs became a cult figure in the modern generation is because of his personal life. Struck by numerous difficulties ranging from monetary troubles to health issues to being kicked out of the company he had founded, Jobs not only overcame those monumental challenges but did so with so much ease and conviction that it appeared to be straight out of a fantasy novel. His take on conventional education, his brief tryst with the counter-culture movement, and his conviction to follow what he believed in strikes a chord within all of us, and his courage in the face of adversity propelled his image to a legendary level. His personal success story would serve as an inspiration for millions of people, and that in itself is a far more significant achievement than the iPhone and iPad can ever be.

The answer to whether Steve Jobs was a ‘great’ man or not depends a lot on how you define ‘great’ these days. Abraham Lincoln was a great president, Gandhi was a great political leader and Einstein was a great scientist. Could Jobs, as the ceo of Apple, be placed in the same category? Surely not, although few would disagree that he was a great businessman, maybe even the greatest one in recent history. In a world where the term ‘great’ is now used to describe the likes of David Beckham, could a visionary like Jobs be a right role model for this generation to follow? The answer is a most definitive ‘yes’.

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