What Steve, Bill and Jeff mean to me

Enough time has passed since the publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that I think it’s safe to give away the last line of the book. Besides, Isaacson himself reveals it in his extensive 60 Minutes interview. (Here’s a tip to those who don’t have time to read the book: just watch the 60 Minutes profile; it remarkably captures the essence of Isaacson’s reporting.)

In the final passage, Jobs is reflecting on mortality and concedes that he’d like to believe in an afterlife.

“But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.” He fell silent for a very long time.

Then he paused again and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

Much can be observed about the late Steve Jobs from this statement: his obsession with simplicity as he oversaw the design of Apple’s remarkable devices, his lifelong connection to digital technology (from pioneering personal computing to creating a market for the “fourth screen” of tablet computing), and how he integrated his soul with the devices that he created. He wanted to make a “dent in the universe” and at least in our gadget-infused, content rich world, he did.

Jobs’ products made a huge dent in my world as a visual storyteller: when I acquired a Powerbook in 2003 with its integrated content creation tools (Final Cut Pro, DVD burning, soundtrack production) I suddenly believed that I could become a filmmaker. Perhaps, I had entered Steve Jobs’ so-called “reality distortion field,” because against all odds, his technology did transform my creativity into a viable content that made its way to the masses.

He’s said to be our generation’s rendition of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or even John Lennon — a “magician genius” who built our era’s “most creative company.” That reality distortion field allowed him to will a world that he wanted to see, into existence. But as the narrative arc of this biography reveals, that same sense of self-belief that brought Jobs his awe-inspiring success, may well have also contributed to his demise.

“Cancer does not work that way,” Isaacson writes. Jobs decided he didn’t want surgeons to cut him open. So with the hope that he could maintain the integrity of his body, he opted for dietary and homeopathic remedies which did nothing to stem the advance of his pancreatic cancer. “Had they operated nine months earlier, they might have caught it before it spread.”

So now that he’s gone, and I’ve finally finished the book, I’ve asked myself whether Jobs’ reality distortion field will endure. In other words, was he as “insanely great” as he wanted to be, and as many of us are proclaiming, even as we continue to grieve his demise, an irreplaceable genius? Or are we somewhat blinded by that distortion field, unable to see that giants as big as Jobs, still walk the earth?

I couldn’t help but consider this, even as I plowed through the book. Jobs’ complicated relationship with Microsoft’s Bill Gates is somewhat testimony to this issue.

Gates was good at computer coding, unlike Jobs, and his mind was more practical, disciplined, and abundant in analytical processing power. Jobs was more intuitive and romantic and had a greater instinct for making technology usable, design delightful, and interfaces friendly.

One of my favorite eulogies to Jobs is Malcolm Gladwell’s Steve Jobs’ Real Genius. Gladwell concludes from Isaacson’s biography that Jobs “was a bully:” a man abandoned by his father who denies paternity, parks in handicapped spaces, screams and cries at subordinates, and even fires 67 nurses before he finds the three he can settle upon to care for him until he dies.

But even more damningly (and perhaps more honestly), Gladwell concludes that Jobs was less of an inventor, and more of a “tweaker.” That his obsession with perfection inspired him to take already existing creations and “ruthlessly refine” them. In other words, he was a tremendous editor: from the Macintosh to the iPod, iPhone and iPad. There were other graphically-based operating systems, other MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers, but Jobs’ tweaking of these systems is what really made them massively popular, thereby changing our worlds.

Bill Gates, by contrast, “resisted the romance of perfectionism.” Indeed, Jobs even belittles him by telling Isaacson, “Bill is basically unimaginative, and has never invented anything, which I think is why he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”

Well if you agree with Gladwell’s premise, Jobs himself wasn’t an inventor either, and was prone to ripping off others’ ideas as well. Indeed, my sympathy (and appreciation) for Gates deepened as I contrasted him to Jobs even as I read Jobs’ biography. Perhaps I have entered Gates’ own “distortion field” having recently met the man, and spent some time at the new temple to philanthropy that he and his wife Melinda have constructed in the heart of Seattle. But I would have to agree with Gladwell when he writes:

It’s true that Gates is now more interested in trying to eradicate malaria than in overseeing the next iteration of Word. But this is not evidence of a lack of imagination. Philanthropy on the scale that Gates practices represents imagination at its grandest.

Then I reflect upon Seattle’s other titan as I continue to consider Jobs’ legacy: Jeff Bezos. After all, I read Steve Jobs’ biography largely on the iPad’s Kindle app. Fortuitously, Wired magazine published its profile of the Amazon founder this week, contrasting Jobs’ vision with Bezos, especially as the new Kindle Fire device is set to do battle with the iPad this holiday season.

The release of the Fire showcases how forward-thinking Bezos has been. After 15 years near the top of the tech heap, he doesn’t have the same outsized profile of other Internet innovators. But that may be changing. People are slowly beginning to realize just how much of the Web is powered by Amazon’s cloud services. And industry observers see Amazon’s entry into the tablet sweepstakes as further evidence that Bezos may well be the premier technologist in America, a figure who casts as big a shadow as legends like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.

In fact, Wired’s Stephen Levy goes as far as to pit Apple against Amazon, dueling visions of Job’s “post-PC” world and Amazon’s “post-Web” one (streamed content in a cloud-centric world is king, the OS and the device themselves are insignificant).

Bezos comes off as a man who delights in disrupting industries — publishing, music, movies. Indeed, if Steve Jobs’ devices facilitated my becoming a professional multimedia storyteller, Jeff Bezos’ platforms and retail channels enabled my media entrepreneurship. You can buy my Independent America DVD on Amazon, I published Storyteller Uprising to Kindle in February when it was a mere two chapters; now it’s a larger book-in-progress that you can find both on Kindle and is a “made-to-order” softcover thanks to Amazon’s CreateSpace service. My other Rising from Ruins film is not on Amazon, but you can watch it on Netflix. The connection to Amazon? The media streaming giant hosts all of its content on Amazon Web Services.

While Bezos is as obsessive as Jobs was and believes in simplifying Amazon’s products for the customer, he admits that his business focus is different: low margins versus Apple’s exceptionally high margins.

We were determined to build the best services but to price them at a level that customers couldn’t match, even if they were willing to use inferior products….We really obsess over small defects. That’s what drives up costs…Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which our customer doesn’t want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect.

Bezos declared that Steve Jobs “was a teacher to anyone paying attention, and he’s gone way too soon.” But when Levy points out that other big tech CEO’s from his generation are disappearing, Amazon’s founder inadvertently brings us comfort, even as we worry about who’ll be the next Steve Jobs.

“Don’t worry, they’ll make more,” Bezos said.

UPDATE: I recommend folks check out this excellent rebuttal of Gladwell’s piece by John Gruber at Daring Fireball.  It connects somewhat to Brook’s comment below about Jobs’ power of synthesis.  Gruber’s position:

Bringing the concepts of a $100,000 networked workstation to a $2500 standalone mass market personal computer is, I say, radically innovative. The Macintosh was no “tweak”. Pixar was no “tweak”. The iPod is maybe the closest thing among Jobs’s career highlights that one could call a “tweak” of that which preceded it — but it’s hard to separate the iPod, the device, from the entire iTunes ecosystem in terms of measuring its effect on our culture and the way everyone today listens to music. Does anyone really think Apple’s entry into the music industry was a “tweak”? A “large-scale visionary” is precisely what Steve Jobs was.

1 comment

  1. Certainly Jobs’ “bullying” behavior is well-documented, but then so is Gates’ and Bezos’. I personally witnessed Bill Gates saying one of the most cutting things I’ve ever heard come out of someone’s mouth, but I’ve also seen him with a big smile on his face from watching stagehands tipping over a giant projection screen and letting it float to the ground.

    People are complex and multi-dimensional and human power relationships and social situations amplify those complexities. Your experience of Bill Gates showing you his foundation headquarters is by definition going to be very different from the experience of the Microsoft employee that was on the receiving end of what I heard him say at 1:00 AM the morning of the Windows ’95 launch. But both are equally true. In Gates’ recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, his charitable reaction to Jobs’ criticism seemed a very honest response rooted in actually knowing Steve Jobs as a person and not merely as a media construct.

    The role of “invention” in discussions like these is very misleading. Very few “inventors” ever corner a market. What matters more is “application.” Xerox may have invented the mouse, but they didn’t know how to apply it to the problem of making computers attractive to consumers. Lots of companies made portable MP3 players, but they didn’t know how to apply the idea in an easy to comprehend “Rip. Play. Burn.” model. Microsoft led the development of smart phones, but didn’t understand how to apply them to consumer needs instead of business productivity needs. Jobs could look at something that already existed and see how it solved a problem that its inventor likely hadn’t even thought of. That’s where his passionate defense of the liberal arts comes in, and it’s a view I wholeheartedly agree with. Synthesis is a greater power than invention.

    I think the most important thing that Gladwell has said about Steve Jobs is in his book “Outliers” and it actually backs up the quote from Bezos that you end with. Systems provide opportunities that favor certain individuals over others. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are both remarkable individuals, but so are a lot of other people. They just happened to be remarkable individuals who were in the right places at the right times to channel their remarkable skills in the direction of the emerging PC market. Both had amazing advantages at an early age that shaped how they applied their particular geniuses in the future.

    Yes, we will make more great tech CEOs. We make the raw material for them all the time. The trick is making sure that the system is functioning right so that a few of these proto-greats actually have the chance to become truly great and don’t get blocked by their circumstances.

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