Steve Jobs’s death has brought forth a well-deserved outpouring of enconomia hailing him for transforming the world for the better. Those tributes are entirely deserved. Who among us has not been affected by his innovations? I write those words on my Mac, I travel with a MacBook, I watch movies on my Apple TV, I listen to music on an iPod, and I am about to switch my smartphone from the Blackberry to the new iPhone 4S.
Even those who don’t use his products have felt his influence: Jobs popularized the personal computer, the mouse and graphical interface, computer-generated animation, the MP3 music player, the touchscreen smartphone, and the tablet computer. The last three–the iPod, iPhone, and iPad–have been introduced just in the past decade, and have gone on to sweep the world. Few technologists or executives have ever had so many big hits in such a short period of time.
It takes nothing away from Jobs’s towering achievement to note, however, that neither he nor most of his information-age peers changed the world as much as the giants of the industrial age. It is hard to conceive now, but until the 19th century Americans–and everyone else on the planet–lived in a world where you could travel no faster than the speed of a horse or of the wind, where photographs and sound recordings did not exist, and neither did electricity or refrigeration or indoor plumbing. It was a world in which life for most was short and miserable, with the vast majority of the population forced to eke out a meager living from the soil–as their ancestors had been doing since time immemorial.
All of that began to change with the invention of the steam engine (James Watt), the railway (Richard Trevithick) and locomotive (George and Robert Stephenson), the steamboat (Robert Fulton), and the electric telegraph (Samuel Morse). Of course, each product was the work of more than one man; there is always collective labor that goes into major breakthroughs, but the aforementioned individuals are the ones most associated with these inventions. They achieved their breakthroughs in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries.
Another round of innovation occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was the period that gave us, among other things, the incandescent light bulb, phonograph and movie camera (all Thomas Edison); the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell); the radio (Guglielmo Marconi); the airplane (the Wright Brothers); the mass-produced automobile (Henry Ford); radar (Robert Watson Watt); cheap steel (Andrew Carnegie); the use of oil for energy (John D. Rockefeller); the modern banking system (J.P. Morgan); the modern corporation (Alfred Sloan Jr.); management science (Frederick Winslow Taylor); and the airline (Juan Trippe, Collett E. Woolman, Howard Hughes, et al.). Also of great importance were medical advances such as the germ theory of disease (Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister and Robert Koch) and the discovery of penicillin (Alexander Fleming), which revolutionized medical care and public sanitation, and allowed people to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the Industrial Revolution.
Simply to write out this list is to convey its significance: Just imagine a world without electricity, telephones, cars, or airplanes (or sterilized medical instruments). That is a lot harder to conceive than a world without smartphones or MP3 players, or even without the Internet or personal computer, in part because all of us who are over the age of 40 grew up in just such a world.
There is no denying the impact of the computer revolution, but Steve Jobs was only one of a number of influential pioneers. I would argue his role was less than that of, say, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce (inventors of the microchip), Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web ), or even Bill Gates who, more than any other person, is associated with the ubiquity of personal computers.
Jobs’s talent was not, of course, to invent things; he was not an engineer. His genius was as a marketer and product designer, taking others’ inventions and remaking them in ways consumers would love. In this respect, he resembled other trailblazers such as Henry Luce (inventor of the news magazine); Ray Croc (founder of McDonald’s and the fast food industry); Walt Disney (the entertainment conglomerate); and Sam Walton (the discount retailer). To suggest he has more in common with Luce et al. than he does with Edison is in no way to demean him: bringing a new product to the masses is a formidable achievement.
Jobs also pulled off the difficult feat of becoming a multi-billionaire businessman and a popular icon, avoiding entirely the anathema that has attached to John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, and other supremely successful executives who were accused of unethical or dodgy practices. In today’s world, only Warren Buffett has been equally beloved.
Finally, Jobs made mincemeat of the myth, popular among so many conservatives, that the 60s were the nadir of American culture. Jobs was a college dropout who came of age in the early 1970s, experimented with LSD, got his start in business by ripping off Ma Bell to make free long-distance calls, and wore jeans on all occasions till the end of his life. He was, in short, the very embodiment of the 60s’ anti-establishment ethos. But the establishment he sought to subvert was not the U.S. government; it was big business as exemplified by IBM and other giant companies that dominated the computer business when he was growing up. And his chosen instrument of protest was not hurling rocks through windows or carrying placards; he took on the corporate drones (depicted in Ridley Scott’s brilliant 1984 commercial for the Macintosh in which IBM was cast as Big Brother) by working harder and producing better products. He succeeded so brilliantly that he (and his peers) founded a new establishment, one in which the standard uniform is now chinos or jeans and casual open-neck shirts, rather than dark suits and starched white shirts with ties—but which has a uniform just the same.
He leaves his legacy at Apple Inc. (no longer “Apple Computer”), which is now competing for the title of the world’s most valuable company with ExxonMobil—successor of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. No matter how Apple fares without him, his reputation appears secure: If Apple is still a business giant 100 years from now (a la General Electric or Exxon), he will be praised for founding such an enduring institution. If, on the other hand, Apple tanks in the future (as appears more likely given the volatile nature of the technology business), Jobs’s genius will stand in all the more stark relief to the mediocrity of his successors.