Steve Jobs Post from Dan Margulis

The home page tonight has an admirable allusion to one of the great print advertising campaigns of the last century, one so successful that its posters still hang in many of our offices. Each featured an iconic independent thinker, anyone from Jackie Robinson to Albert Einstein. The portrait was always black and white, normally in a provocative, pensive closeup. The only graphic elements were the Apple logo and two words: Think Different.

Someone tasteful at Apple has found an appropriate portrait to recall the series and accompany the simple, sad words: Steve Jobs, 1955-2011. Almost everyone in the world has been affected by this man's work, but we in the graphic arts have been impacted much more than most, for which reason a few comments are in order.

Jobs goes down as the most influential businessperson in American history, and I say this as a student of both John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, both of whom lived much longer than he did.

We have not seen such a combination of talents in a single individual. He was our greatest product designer because he understood both form and function. Paul Rand, whom Jobs often worked with and was himself featured in the Think Different campaign, was a brilliant designer in terms of the way products look and how they are advertised, but he did not have anything close to Jobs' knowledge of what the products were actually supposed to do. Thomas Edison, also part of the Think Different series, is comparable to Jobs in his knowledge of what innovative products were really needed and how to make them easy to use. But Edison's products were by no means as elegant as Jobs'.

Just the knowledge of both form and function sets Jobs apart. So does his ability to absorb technological change over an extended time. Remember, he was brilliantly innovative almost 30 years ago. It would have been easy for him to be blindsided by the development of the web, or to have lost interest in communications technology, particularly in the last eight years of his life, when he was plagued by health issues. Instead, some of his most successful designs were introduced in his last years.

Add to this mix a phenomenal ability as a public speaker and an inspirational managerial style, stir briskly, and what do you get? An adopted boy, a counterculturalist, college dropout, vegetarian, somebody with difficulty with authority, builds something in a garage that grows up to be the most valuable company in the world; he himself not only becomes a billionaire but the most valuable businessman in the history of the world, if Barron's is to be believed. Based on technical analysis of Apple's market cap (disclosure: I have often held largish amounts of Apple stock, and it continues to be the biggest single position in my equities portfolio), they estimated that the market was putting a value of around $25 billion on Jobs continuing to run the company in good health.

The old saw is that such a thing could only happen in America, and it was likely true at the time. One of the saddest things about the current economic situation is that it probably could not happen in America any more. Now is not the time or place to have that discussion, nor is it a good moment to flesh out the dark side of Steve Jobs, which definitely existed.

As for us, it's too early to evaluate Jobs' contribution to how business is done on the web, other than it will be massive. In terms of conventional publishing, if Jobs had never lived we would still be doing publishing on desktop computers today but we would be at least five and perhaps ten years behind where we are today. This is not just because, at a time when few of us knew how to use computers, the Macintosh was easy to learn, although that was a very big deal.

A bigger factor was that Jobs was pigheaded enough to mandate things that programmers and hardware developers did not want to do. For a fuller description, part of a message about Jobs' legacy that I posted here a year and a half ago is appended.

I close with two thoughts. First, the two men whom I earlier compared Jobs to, Rockefeller and Ford, were, apart from their businesses, great humanitarians who did things of lasting impact for all of us--in their old age. We can only speculate what Steve Jobs would have done if he had been granted as many years.

Second, my quick list of the faces in the Think Different series, in addition to the ones mentioned previously (Edison, Einstein, Rand, Robinson), includes Ansel Adams, Joan Baez, Maria Callas, César Chávez, Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, Jim Henson, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon, Ted Turner, and James Watson. By posting a portrait of Jobs in a style deliberately chosen to evoke the advertising campaign, someone may have been suggesting that Jobs deserves the honor of being considered in the same league as these people. Personally, I would amend that to say that it honors the memory of the others to suggest that they should be considered comparable to Steve Jobs.

Dan Margulis

P.S. Here is a piece of my post of 5 May, 2010.

If you're into American history, one of the best one-volume
biographies around is Flexner, Washington, The Indispensable Man.
The thesis is that on rare occasions one individual's combination of
talents and flaws matches the needs of the times so perfectly that,
if given the opportunity, he can change history in a way that would
be most unlikely if he had never existed.

Indispensable men are very rare, first of all because there are not
that many opportunities to change history, and more importantly
because it's usually possible to envision somebody else doing the
same thing if the candidate for indispensability had never existed.
Jefferson was brilliant and influential, but he wasn't indispensable.
Without him, things would have played out approximately as they did.
Washington was different. It is hard to conceive of a replacement
with the same unique skill set at exactly the time it was needed.

Bill Gates is currently an indispensable man. Many people in history
have been as rich as he is, but nobody has ever before used such
wealth so intelligently and for so many projects that benefit
mankind. However, Gates was not indispensable to the computer
industry. If he had never been born, there might not have been a
Microsoft, but an industry-standard OS would still have developed.
Similarly, all of Adobe's products, with the possible
exception of Acrobat, were foreordained. If they had not been
introduced by Adobe they would have been introduced by somebody else
at about the same time.

Steve Jobs, OTOH, was indispensable. The reason was simply stated
by Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the
unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man."

Jobs is surely unreasonable, and often it's cost him, as he's gotten
himself into serious trouble that any reasonable person would have
known to avoid. However, he also has a strong technical knowledge of
his field, a sure sense of how that field is developing, and is one
of the greatest product designers in history. Other similarly
talented unreasonable people presumably exist, but none of them
happen to be CEOs of companies big enough to make a difference.

It was unreasonable of Jobs to insist on PostScript as Apple's
exclusive page description language, when better languages that he
could not license existed. Allowing many different standards, as IBM
did, was undeniably more reasonable, but Jobs' decision launched
desktop publishing, and without it we would have lost at least five
years. It was completely unreasonable to withdraw support for the
SCSI interface standard when the whole world had serious investments
in that flaky, but standard, technology. It was unreasonable to pull
modems off Apple laptops when such a large number of users still
needed them to dial into the internet. It was unreasonable to design
a computer that could not be physically connected to other
computers. And on and on.

Executives at other companies would not have taken those unreasonable
decisions. Neither would any successor to Jobs, because any successor
could only have risen to the top by being reasonable and only by
remaining so could maintain the confidence of the board of directors,
which is always reasonable. Eventually of course all companies would
have made the decision to pull floppies and modems and the like off
their computers, but only when it was reasonable to do so, say, when
99 percent of the user base had already migrated to something else.
And today we would all be using dated technology with way too many
competing standards.
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