Was Steve Jobs Really A Tech Visionary?


Ever since his death, Steve Jobs has attained an almost saintly stature among his otherwise very tech-savvy and definitely secular fan base. Why the adulation? Well, he did go out in a blaze of glory The past ten years of Jobs life was nothing short of miraculous for Apple’s stock. Back during Gil Amelio’s (remember him?) term, Apple stock was in the basement.

Many tech observers thought that Amelio was doing a bad job even trying to hold together the mediocre achievements of his predecessor, John Sculley. Indeed, during those years, Microsoft was the undisputed sun everyone revolved around. After all, Microsoft just offed Netscape in a corporate MMA brawl that would make anyone wince. Still, Jobs came back after Amelio got dumped by Apple’s board.

The Return Of Steve Jobs and The Innovator Mystique

Interestingly enough, Jobs’ return wasn’t even by outright recruitment, but because he was part of Apple’s acquisition of Jobs’ NeXT computing company. During this second act, Jobs truly performed and launched the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad in an almost unbelievably quick sequence.

The iPod revolutionized the personal mobile music player product segment, the iPhone changed what people can do with mobile phones forever, and the iPad took mobile computing and entertainment to a whole new level. It was this late flurry of innovations that put a lot of lustre on Steve Jobs’ star as an innovator.

However, prior to this time, he was looked at in less glowing terms Indeed, as mentioned many times before when he was still alive, the guy just ‘took credit’ for stuff other people did. So, in the spirit of putting his legacy in context, here’s a quick analysis of Steve Jobs’ innovation before and after his famous booting from Apple.

Xerox, The iPod, and The Magic Of Image Making

Many articles and book segments have been written about the episode when Steve Jobs paid a visit to Xerox’ research facility and laid his eyes on a strange pointing device that let the operator navigate a screen. Called a ‘mouse’, this device was quite alien in the years of DOS where operators merely typed commands and backslashes to navigate from folder to folder and get stuff done.

Interestingly enough, mouse support made a grand entrance into mainstream computing with the release of the Mac computer. Jobs was there to soak it up and proudly claimed to be the father. Consider it a reverse-Maury Povich moment. However, the real dad of the mouse, and the graphical user interface for that matter, Xerox went on to fade into computing obscurity. If anything, this sad episode showed that the genius of Jobs laid not so much in innovation but in convincing the public they need certain innovations and not others.

The same played out with the iPod. There were mp3 players before. There were file sharing solutions before the iPod. However, Jobs meshed these two together into a closed system and got music industry cooperation and Apple proceeded to mint tons of money. Again, salesmanship and clever alliances won the day-not pure innovation.

The same situation can be said about the real role of Steve Wozniak in the early days of Apple before Wozniak sold out his shares. The bottom line is Jobs made the salesmanship of his image as a visionary the linchpin for Apple’s sales success. I don’t know about you but convincing people you’re an innovator using innovative image making is a stroke of genius.

People can innovate but if they can’t sell, the innovation remains a niche product. Jobs’ genius was convincing the world that he had the future in his hands.

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