The genius, Steve Jobs

Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’ biological sister, professor at UCLA and a writer, gave a very moving eulogy at her brother’s memorial services at Stanford. Among many unique qualities, she pointed out his deep sense of aesthetics and said – His philosophy of aesthetics reminds me of a quote that went something like this: “Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later; art can be ugly at first but it becomes beautiful later.”

Steve brought an unique combination of technology and liberal arts. His products were not just boring boxes in gray with alarmingly complex usability challenges for the user. They were delightful in design, looks, and user experience. When I joined Oracle in 1992, after spending 16 years at IBM, I had no experience of using an Apple McIntosh computer. On my second day at work, my new computer arrived in a box with the Apple logo. As usual, I waited for someone to come and install it when Larry Ellison commented to me, “why don’t you just plug it in, and see? It might work”. He had that teasing smile. I actually did and to my surprise everything was so simple and easy to use. I never had to look at a manual or get into any training. I felt embarrassed that I had never used such a product before.

During the second coming  of Steve Jobs to Apple from 1998 on, we saw one amazing product after another – iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, iCloud, not to speak of his other grand success at Pixar. He always followed his conviction that vertical integration of hardware, software and service is the only way to bring out the best user experience. This was contrary to the horizontal structure that emerged during the PC era (each layer had many suppliers). Microsoft achieved bigger success by licensing its operating system to any hardware manufacturers, but the PC and Windows remain quite complex for the user to this day.

Steve’s original idea was vindicated when it came to consumer products like the iPhone or the iPad. Of course, Apple opened up the access to large number of application builders on those devices. But they never licensed the operating system to other device manufacturers, something Google’s Android is doing. Steve also did not allow buggy and bloated piece of software like Adobe Flash into those devices as they would have compromised his “insanely great” product. Initially he was criticized for such a move, but he was all along right as Adobe recently stopped supporting Flash on mobile devices.

I just finished reading his biography by Walter Isaacson, a 945 page book. It is worth reading as it brings out the unique personality of Steve Jobs. Former vice president and Apple board member Al Gore said the other day that someone like Steve Jobs comes to this planet once every 250 years. A genius in innovation, design, technology, and aesthetics Steve brought products that touched all of our lives in some way or the other. By the time he died in October Apple’s market valuation was almost at the top. He left behind a great legacy.

Steve will remain a tremendous inspiration to technology folks for years to come.


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