In an attempt to be timely, I wanted to capture my thoughts on yesterday’s news that Apple founder Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO. He remains Chairman, heart and soul of the now iconic technology company, but there’s little doubt that his unfortunately poor health has pushed him to this. The internet is buzzing about all the things his resignation does and doesn’t mean to Apple and the technology-fetishized world he helped create. Steve Jobs has fans, haters, admirers and critics, but when I think about what he and his company have accomplished in the grand scheme of things, I always think of another technology pioneer, Orville Wright.
Steve Jobs is, in my mind anyway, the Orville Wright of personal computing. He and Steve Wozniak built the first computer intended for use by regular people, and the world was never the same. Like the 1903 Wright Flyer, it wasn’t much to look at. It barely did anything useful. It’s laughably archaic by today’s standards. But what Steve-squared built in their garage in the late ’70s changed the world just as profoundly as the Wright Brothers’ first 120 ft hop in their flying contraption. Where the speed of the airplane soon shrunk the world for everything from parcel delivery to personal travel, the personal computer — especially with the advent of the internet — has made the world all but 2D. I can have a face-to-face conversation with my friends in Japan because that technology is built into my Mac. All of the innovation that brought us here was not of Apple’s making, but they were one of the first to put the computer in the hands of regular people. Every time Jobs gives an Apple Keynote address, I like to think that it’s as close as someone of my generation can get to listening to Orville Wright talk about airplanes. We don’t have many pioneers of this magnitude left, and sadly, I fear we won’t have Steve for a whole lot longer given his poor health.
I think it’s interesting that just like Apple and Google today, the Wright Aeronautical company of the early 20th century had its own high profile rivalry with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company and its well known founder, Glenn Curtiss. The Wrights (correctly) accused Curtiss of stealing trade secrets off a wrecked Flyer, and spent years of time and piles of money fighting to defend their patents from Curtiss and other competitors. It was not completely unlike the patent wars raging between the big technology players like Google and Microsoft today. Ironically, the Wright and Curtis companies merged 1929, and I wonder if in the long run we won’t see two of the current giants (Apple, Microsoft or Google) join forces to fend off the third.
Steve Jobs’ legacy in the technology world is on the tip of the media’s tongue right now, but let’s not forget that in 1986 Steve Jobs was the angel investor in a little computer animation startup called Pixar. A company, like Apple, that went on to revolutionize its industry, dominate its primary area of focus, and inspire several competitors who do it well, but not quite as well as Pixar does. While John Lasseter is to credit for Pixar’s storytelling soul, he’ll be the first to admit that Steve Jobs played no small role in providing strategic vision for the company. It makes me think of the role Wright engines came to play in the years before merging with Curtiss. It was a Wright J-5c “Whirlwind” radial engine that pulled The Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris with Charles Lindbergh at the controls. That flight not only made Lindbergh the world’s first modern superstar celebrity, but it ushered in the era of commercial flight as we know it. In the years since, it’s commercial aviation that keeps the whole economy of flight (and the economies of the world) on the move.
I agree with most that Apple will live on successfully in Jobs’ legacy. The company’s processes, the top-tier talent, and seasoned leadership team at Apple are not only stable, they’re not stupid. They knew this day would come. We all did. The culture and values created at Apple — its very ethos of doing what it does — isn’t going to change any time soon. As remarkable as Steve Jobs is, and as invaluable as his leadership to Apple has been, he hasn’t done it alone. I’m confident that we’ll see a successful post-Jobs Apple that will not only persist, but will continue to innovate in ways that push the boundaries of our expectations and shape the digital culture to come. Just as Orville Wright was eventually eclipsed by other aviation innovators, the spirit of adventure he helped foster, and many of the aerodynamic principles he helped discover still drive aviation innovation today.
Orville Wright died in 1948, but he lived long enough to see his invention change the face of warfare, commerce, travel and exploration. He lived long enough to know a world without flight and a world in which man flew faster than sound. A decade later, man walked on the moon. I don’t know how much longer Steve Jobs will be with us, but under his leadership, Apple has changed the face of consumer technology. He helped reinvent the computer as we knew it. Then the interface. Then Apple did it all over again with the iMac. The iPod conquered music. The iPhone made our telephones smarter. The iPad overcame the world’s doubts to make us feel like we live in the future. What’s next? For Apple and its “me too” competitors, what will the legacy of Steve Jobs’ leadership be decades from now? Time will tell. In the meantime, Godspeed, Steve, and thank you.