Steve Jobs - A Personal Calendar Entry
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Steve Jobs was almost unbelievably young when we met him. We talk about him as a visionary now, but then, they called him a whiz kid, the Boy Wonder: 21 when Apple was founded in 1976, 22 when Apple formally incorporated, 25 for Apple's IPO, and 26 when he first made the cover of Time Magazine. Macintosh shipped when Steve was 28.
A more personal calendar entry: Steve was 24 when he hired my father, who at a "grizzled" 41 became Apple's first Director of Operations.
Because the subsequent Apple logos have become so ubiquitous, most people missed Apple's first logo: Isaac Newton sitting under an Apple tree, with this truly striking quote of Newton's as the motto: "A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought - alone."
Wow. The motto for Morton Salt is "When it rains, it pours."
I think that "alone" in the motto refers to Apple making a truly personal computer, rather than something for the institutions that IBM favored. For Apple, "alone" meant separate from other computer companies, but even more so, reflected Steve's vision for Apple: free of attention to market interests, in order to focus on what Apple, alone, thought was worth pursuing -- with Apple, alone, judging its success.
In a 1985 interview, at 29 and still at Apple, Steve said, "[W]e didn't build Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren't going to go out and do market research."
In fact, Steve openly mocked IBM for their reliance on market research, citing it as the primary evidence that they had no pride in their own work. If they did, said Steve, they wouldn't have made PCjr. And what was so wrong with PCjr? "It seems clear to me that they were designing that on the basis of market research for a specific market segment, for a specific demographic type of customer."
While nobody should be held in their 50s to what they said at 29 -- and Steve was surely oversimplifying for effect -- his approach remained remarkably consistent. A 2008 profile of Apple in Fortune observed, "Apple scoffs at the notion of a target market. It doesn't even conduct focus groups. 'You can't ask people what they want if it's around the next corner,' says Steve Jobs."
Is any of this sounding familiar yet? No? How about this: when challenged in that 1985 interview that the new Mac left its entire customer base "with incompatible, out-of-date products," Steve replied that compatibility with the past was "too limiting. [W]e needed a technology that would make the thing radically easier to use and more powerful at the same time, so we had to make a break. We just had to do it."
Let's review. Sacrificing backward compatibly for Apple's own idea of increased simplicity and power. Explicitly rejecting the value of customer input because Apple knows the future and customers don't. Measuring pride in their work by disregard for specific market segments. Serving as the sole judge of their own success.
Now is this sounding familiar?
I don't mean to condense Steve's legacy in this specific market to the observation that, for his entire career, he rejected the very idea of specific markets. That's clearly not entirely the case -- but it's not entirely not the case either. FCPX's incompatibility with the last dozen years of Final Cut Pro, and its development in the apparent absence of meaningful customer input, is completely consistent with what Steve had done from the beginning. Under his leadership, Apple didn't abandon this market any more than they ever embraced it.
In fact, let's take Steve's quote about the origin of the Mac, swap out a couple of letters, and see what we get: "We didn't build FCPX for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren't going to go out and do market research."
There's no denying that this approach worked for Apple nearly every single time under Steve. Maybe even this time, eventually. Some of FCP's most enthusiastic advocates have already turned to other NLEs. Some now see decisive evidence that their future and Apple's have diverged so far that they're considering leaving the Mac platform altogether. But others are starting to feel that, with significant further development, FCPX may well be added to Apple's list of successes. Apple will have once again shown that, as exasperating as it can be, the process that Steve pursued is the right one.
So how does an approach that consistently rejects market-specific input keep working? Steve's disregard for continuity with the past and customer expectations for the future freed him to make things the best they could be. And in Steve's mind, for products to be their best, they had to be both simple and beautiful. In that sense, the evolution of FCP to FCPX was inevitable. FCP was capable, yes, but complicated and, frankly, ugly.
In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve said that he dropped out of Reed College not to stop taking classes, but so that he could ignore required courses in favor of interesting ones. He recalled that Reed had one of the country's great calligraphy programs, and that he saw elegant hand lettering everywhere he turned on campus. "It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating," which is what led him to take a calligraphy class.
"None of this had even a hope of any practical and application in my life," he continued. "But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."
In this case, beauty found its practice, but at the time, beauty was enough. It turns out, he said, that "you can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."
He tried connecting the dots forward in his 1985 interview. "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they're rare." Connecting the dots back, Steve arguably achieved all of his greatest artistic successes from 46 to 56: OS X, iPod, the iTunes Music Store, the last two iterations of iMacs, iPhone and iPad to name just a few. In light of those, the original Mac was just a computer.
(And not one as well received as you might have thought. Initial sales were slow because there was no software. The 1984 Industrial Design Excellence Award (IDEA) was not given to the Mac, but to the striking Apple IIc, the fastest-selling computer in history, introduced two months after the Mac, at Apple's, ahem, "Apple II Forever" conference. Swing by YouTube to catch the official music video: "Apple II forever and ever! Bringing the rainbow to you!")
Nobody plans to die at 56. Certainly not anyone who is 56. However, Steve had been thinking about death for a long time. He said that when he was a teen, he read that you should live each day of your life as if it was your last, because one of these days, it will be. His address at Stanford was delivered less than a year after he had been told that he would die in a few months. The cancer proved to be more treatable than first thought, but still, "No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there."
At the same time, he continued, "Death may be Life's finest invention. All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
That's why he created beautiful things and expected people to be drawn to them, rather than trying to compete with others chasing the needs of a market. In following his heart, Steve was indeed "A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought - alone." Yet not alone, as we were sometimes drawn to join those voyages. Even if quite a few of his individual artistic choices didn't work at all for me, enough of them did that I wouldn't want to have missed a crack at them. He trusted the dots to connect looking forward, and more often than not, they did.
He ended his Stanford commencement address with the benediction from the last page of the final issue of the Whole Earth Catalog: "Stay hungry, stay foolish." Apple Computer was in fact founded on April Fool's Day, and Steve certainly stayed hungry.
Steven Paul "Steve" Jobs, February 24, 1955 - October 5, 2011. He was almost unbelievably young when we met him, and almost unbelievably young when he passed. I'm glad that our time here overlapped for a while, though, and I'll bet that you are too.
"THAT PART OF HIS BRAIN WAS FOR MORE IMPORTANT THINGS."