Steve Jobs: Why His Biggest Success Was Learning From Failure
It's been a month since Steve Jobs' death, and in the weeks since, the world has mourned and shared its admiration and appreciation for the man who brought us beautiful gadgets that changed our lives. Thanks to Walter Isaacson's new biography, the Apple visionary continues to inspire.
His life's work taught us many lessons. Among them -- that perseverance and adaptability (with a bit of foolishness) are vital partners with vision (and in Jobs' case, of course, genius).
Jobs also taught us brilliantly about failure. Many of today's digital natives moving seamlessly from iPhone 4S to the MacBook Air to the iPad have no recollection of the early history of Apple.
Regardless about how you felt about the "old" Apple products, the company in its first generation brought innovation to the PC market, but nearly went bankrupt. Apple as a fully integrated, proprietary hardware/software company -- arguably with superior design -- was beaten out by a cannier software competitor and the network effects that that competitor managed to create.
What is remarkable to me about Jobs' return to Apple, and the great success he subsequently achieved, is how he pursued a very similar philosophy -- disruptive and customer-focused vision, obsessive focus on design, highly proprietary hardware and software products. Except he did it with a crucial adaptation: he built the network effects, the very effects that had led to Apple v1's failure, into the infrastructure of Apple v2's strategy and products. With the iPod, the iTunes ecosystem created powerful network with a comprehensive set of music and video content suppliers. For customers, an entirely new product category was made compelling not only by "cool" proprietary hardware and software design (traditional Apple strengths), but also by a comprehensive content source that could monetize what had previously been offered for free. Content providers were thus motivated to use iTunes due to its content network (and subsequent customer network). Likewise, the iPhone and iPad are design-led, but their success has been driven by an App Store ecosystem which is compelling for users and developers alike, simply because there are so many users (i.e. a larger interactive user network) and developers (i.e. a larger modular developer network) constantly innovating within the system.
One could argue that, ironically, Apple has now gone full circle. The area of Apple's greatest past failure -- "traditional" personal computing -- has been enjoying greater success, with the MacBook's growing market share not only due to fabulous design, but also due to the network effects of their easier interoperability with (as well as the "halo effect" of ) the market-dominating iPads, iPhones and iPods.
Steve Jobs was always a visionary genius, but what makes him so compelling to me is the fact that after creating great products that only reached the few, he returned, learned and adapted his vast creative talents to create whole new product categories, distribution models, creative platforms and customer experiences that have positively impacted the lives of millions. His passion for products was contagious and inspired our own. He made his greatest failure into his greatest success. We will all miss him.