The Once and Future Steve Jobs

Is he a role model?

In 1998, Jay Chiat, whose agency, Chiat/Day, helped invent the Tao of Apple, was trying to convince me of Steve Jobs’ epochal importance. Jay and Steve had become good friends (although Chiat also regarded Jobs as being epochally irritating), and I figured his regard for Jobs was more sentimental than historical. After all, at that point in time, 20 years after Apple had started, almost nobody but the most faithful would have credited Apple with being much more than a specialty enterprise. Apple, however innovative, had overwhelmingly lost to Windows and was not even a contender in the Internet universe.

The legend of Steve Jobs, in other words, is not only based on transformative technology, but on the fact that he achieved one of the great reversals in business history. Everybody else turns out to have been wrong, and he turns out to have been right. In a world and industry that values teamwork and groupthink and wisdom of crowds, Jobs’ contrariness prevailed.

His rules were irascibly—almost autistically—his own.

At the center of his worldview was a retro thesis about machines—that they were cool.

The commonplace modern view, on the other hand, was that machines, i.e., hardware, had been commoditized into identitylessness. And, indeed, Apple, dedicated to the singularity of its own hardware, shrunk to something like irrelevance on the strength of its refusal to license its software to run on other people’s machines. And yet, the resurgence that began when Jobs returned to the company he had 12 years before been kicked out of, was based on nothing so much as his continued insistence on the primacy of his box. He took this fetishistic view even further, turning his machines into accessories, trophies, and talismans—into lifestyle choices. Not for nothing is Jobs often grouped with Ralph Lauren in the marketing pantheon.

Jobs was a brander, a pioneer of the product as experience and identity and personal statement, with all the corporate control and disciplined messaging that requires. The rebel and poet and romantic figure, was, too, an authoritarian and despot. Microsoft, heretofore the gold standard in corporate hegemony, was left looking like a disorganized and mealy mouth liberal regime next to Apple’s ultimate dictatorship.

The irony of Jay Chiat’s "1984" Big Brother Apple ad was most of all that Big Brother turned out to have a great sense of style.

And yet, Jobs was an awfully unlikely corporate autocrat. He was too odd. Too apart. Too messianic. Too too.

He may have been, according to Rupert Murdoch (who, until he needed to do an iPad deal, found Jobs to be a “fruitcake”), one of the best chief executives of the age, but he was, as well, among the most peculiar. His near other-worldly obsessiveness added a whole new dimension to the business case study.

No doubt, part of his ever-increasing desire for control over the last few years was that he knew, even if his shareholders did not, that he was dying. His circumscribed time line lent new urgency to his thesis—the machine rules, and ubiquity meant that his machines would rule ever more absolutely. Apple was never more successful than in the period when Jobs knew he himself was doomed.

He is now the unequaled model for success in American business life. This is a bit confounding because there is little in American business life that would encourage anybody to be like Jobs—everything augers against not taking the risks he took, or being as difficult as he always was, and the kind of micromanager he couldn’t help himself from being. Most of all, as Steve did, you’re not supposed to make it so much about yourself.

But now, a new generation of messianic technology executives—we know who they are—are on the scene. Everybody of any ambition wants to be Steve-like in his fervor, control, and ultimate influence. This may prove to be a good thing and presage a future of many Apples.

Or, more likely, it will prove that Steve Jobs was a one-off.

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