The Power of Taking the Big Chance
By STEVE LOHR
STEVE JOBS, technologist and tastemaker of modern digital culture, described himself as a captain of product design, inspiring his teams of workers, as he once said, to go “beyond what anyone thought possible” and to do “some great work, really great work that will go down in history.”
And he did, time and again. Mr. Jobs did not make the technology himself; he led the teams that did, prodding, cajoling and inspiring. His track record as a business team leader is unique — as Apple’s Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad testify. In two stints at Apple, he made computers into coveted consumer goods and transformed not only product categories, like music players and cellphones, but also entire industries, like music and mobile communications.
Mr. Jobs even failed well. NeXT, a computer company he founded during his years in exile from Apple, was never a commercial success. But it was a technology pioneer. The World Wide Web was created on a NeXT computer, and NeXT software is the core of Apple’s operating systems today.
Part of Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be the lessons learned by those who worked closely with him over the years. Here are just a few:
DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO DELIGHT CUSTOMERS Six weeks before the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Mr. Jobs ordered a crucial design change. Until then, the planning for supplies, manufacturing and engineering had been based on the assumption that the smartphone’s face would be plastic, recalls Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who led iPod and iPhone development from 2001 to 2009. Plastic is less fragile than glass, and easier to make.
But the plastic touch screen had a drawback. It was prone to developing scratches. Those scratches, Mr. Jobs insisted, would irritate users and be seen as a design flaw. “All the logical facts told us to go with plastic, and Steve’s instinct went the other way,” Mr. Fadell says. “It was Steve’s call — his gut.”
The glass choice was a challenge that seemed “nearly impossible” at the time, he says — a last-minute scramble to get supplies of specialized glass and tweak the design of the phone’s casing to reduce the chances the glass would crack when an iPhone was dropped. But with extra investment and a frenetic work regimen, the switch proved doable, despite the tight deadline.
The episode, Mr. Fadell says, points to a principle he took away from his years working with Mr. Jobs. “You do not cut corners and you make sure the customer gets an experience that is an absolute delight,” observes Mr. Fadell, who heads a Silicon Valley start-up company whose product has not yet been disclosed and will not compete with Apple.
GOOD IDEAS TAKE TIME After he was ousted from Apple, Mr. Jobs founded NeXT in 1985. It produced a powerful desktop computer, a stylish black cube, and its initial market was going to be in education. The idea was that the machine would be more than hardware and software; it would also offer content, “a universe of wisdom,” recalls Michael Hawley, a computer scientist who worked closely with Mr. Jobs at NeXT and lived part time in Mr. Jobs’s house, as Mr. Hawley shuttled between California and his post at the M.I.T. Media Lab.
NeXT computers, in Mr. Jobs’s vision, would marry technology and the liberal arts by including digital books, music and art. Mr. Jobs began pursuing the rights to works that could be converted to digital form. He persuaded a few publishers that because they would save the expense of paper, printing and distribution, NeXT should pay a royalty that was a fraction of the cost of a printed book. Mr. Jobs, Mr. Hawley recalled, struck a deal with the Oxford University Press for the complete works of Shakespeare for a royalty of $1 a digital copy.
NeXT’s foray into education fizzled; its machines were too expensive for that market. But Mr. Jobs’s concept and business model for digital media were “the instinct that was translated to Apple with the iTunes store, 99-cents-a-song pricing and all the media offerings that have followed,” Mr. Hawley says.
“When Steve believed in an idea, he was both passionate and patient, scratching away over the years until he got it right,” says Mr. Hawley, a scientist, concert pianist and host of the EG Conference, an annual gathering for technologists, educators and people in media and entertainment.
DON’T DWELL ON MISTAKES Steve Capps, a computer scientist, describes creating the Macintosh, which shipped in 1984, as a constant process of making decisions — part experiment and part product development, with steps ahead mixed with many setbacks. “Steve kind of knew what he wanted, but he didn’t precisely,” says Mr. Capps, who designed software for Macintosh.
Mr. Jobs, Mr. Capps remembers, was the arbiter on countless hardware, software and design choices. “His combination of incisiveness and decisiveness, I think, really explained his success,” Mr. Capps says.
Mr. Jobs was also decisive in recognizing mistakes, even when they were his own. For example, he favored one model of a disk drive — for reading computer programs stored on small, removable so-called floppy disks — while other members of the team championed another design. They kept their disk project going surreptitiously. When they showed him the result, he embraced it. “He turned on a dime,” Mr. Capps says. “Don’t dwell on your mistakes. It’s a great lesson.”
PASSION COUNTS FOR A LOT The relentless intensity and total commitment that Mr. Jobs brought to his work, former colleagues and friends agree, had a simple explanation: he genuinely enjoyed what he did and found it worthwhile.
Andy Hertzfeld, a member of original Macintosh team who is now an engineer at Google, says: “The most important thing that I learned from Steve is to always follow your heart. He believed that the only way to do truly great work is to adore what you are doing.”
Mr. Jobs made a lot of money over the years, for himself and for Apple shareholders. But money never seemed to be his principal motivation. One day in the late 1990s, Mr. Jobs and I were walking near his home in Palo Alto. Internet stocks were getting bubbly at the time, and Mr. Jobs spoke of the proliferation of start-ups, with so many young entrepreneurs focused on an “exit strategy,” selling their companies for a quick and hefty profit.
“It’s such a small ambition and sad really,” Mr. Jobs said. “They should want to build something, something that lasts.”