STEVE JOBS had a knack for seeing the adult in a child, the grown-up product that an infant idea could grow up and become. Looking at the toy computers that hobbyists soldered in their 1970s garages, he envisioned people like you and me wanting vastly more capable versions on our desks. Looking back, you’d think it was obvious … which is pretty much the whole point about Steve Jobs’ genius.
For example, I wrote my first novel with a typewriter and edited using a pair of scissors. I cut-and-paste with lots of actual tape and glue. When I saw what an Apple II could accomplish, I bought one with a serial number in five digits, and I’ve used its Apple successors ever since. They simply made life better.
The Xerox Corporation was a great American success story, but they never made this mental leap to thinking about people as customers—thereupon ignoring the market for home copiers. They also snubbed their own innovators in Palo Alto, who wanted to turn the computer screen into a landscape, using a “mouse” to simply point at what you wanted. Executives at Xerox viewed this as a toy. Steve Jobs took one look at those early concepts and thought: “That’s how our ancestors’ brains worked on the savannah, and it’s how to turn every human being into a computer user.”
Even people who prefer Windows should still thank Steve for saving these inventions. He gave them to us all. Early Macintosh computers offered a little program called Hypercard. It came with a few simple demo games, meant to illustrate the notion of click-linking from page to page. This was one of Steve’s worst marketing mistakes. He thought the concept of hypertext was so obvious the world would see those little demos and run with it! But the same derisive sneers dismissed it as a “toy” … until Tim Berners-Lee invented the hypertext-based web, and it all became retroactively obvious.
By then, alas, Jobs wasn’t in much of a position to insist, having been cast into the wilderness by his own company. So he built Pixar. Nearly all of Steve’s wealth came from Pixar, not Apple. He sold all his Apple stock in the early 1990s. Kind of like Nicola Tesla refusing stock in alternating current. If he had kept that stock—or milked Apple later on, for huge compensation packages—Jobs could have been in the top tier of world’s richest men, instead of a mere single-digit billionaire.
Instead, his passion was to make all of us richer, in the sense of the true positive-sum game, when capitalism works. When millions of lives get better because we got insanely good products that were worth many times what we paid for them and that helped us be more productive in our own ways. Alas, if only all of capitalism worked that way, as it’s supposed to.
Jobs never seemed as blatantly philanthropic as some—we’ll see how that turns out. And heaven forbid that most families or nations should be run in the imperial manner that, in some great companies like Apple, can get big things done, pursuing the virtue of exquisite product design above all else.
But those are minor cavils. What we ultimately see, in this bona fide American genius, is a light showing us the path out of America’s troubles. Do what we’re good at. Innovate! Be thrilled by science and the infant technologies that may grow mighty tomorrow. Nurture the inner tinkerer that all the world sees in us, and has ever since the nation’s beginning. Defend intellectual property. But stimulate others so much that nobody resents it. Make money not by financial parasitism but delivering better goods and services. (Duh?)
Help us all to both compete and cooperate with each other better than ever before.