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Bill George

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Remembering the Greatest Innovator of the Past Fifty Years

Posted: 10/09/11 03:30 PM ET

With the tragic death of Steve Jobs at the age of 56, the world lost its greatest innovator in the past fifty years. Through his visionary genius, Jobs transformed five separate fields: personal computers with the Macintosh and iMac, animated films with Pixar studios, music players with the iPod, entertainment storage with iTunes, the smart phone with the iPhone, and most recently, created an entirely new field with the iPad. No one in history has successfully transformed so many different fields.

Jobs was not an engineer or scientist, nor did he make use of traditional marketing techniques such as consumer focus groups. Rather, his creative genius was his ability to perceive what consumers would want before they could articulate it. In a data-based era where everyone is demanding data and "proof" in advance, Jobs used his intuitive abilities to envision the kind of problems that would please consumers and meet their unstated desires.

Then he translated those wants into simple, yet elegant devices that were so intuitive to use that no user manual was required. In 1985 he pioneered creative graphics, using a wide array of color, that brought computer screens to life and made them easy to use without understanding programming languages. I had my first Apple product with the Apple 2 in 1982, but my engagement with personal computers really took off with my first purchase of a Macintosh in 1986. Since then, I have enjoyed using my iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and I 'm looking forward to becoming an iCloud user.

What's not well understood about Jobs is the extent to which he was influenced by failure -- his own. Recognizing the limits of his managerial abilities in his younger years, the Apple board insisted he bring in a business partner, which led to the recruiting of John Scully in 1982. That marriage, which seemed to go well at first, blew up in 1985 when the two differed on strategy. Was it Jobs' rigidity over refusing to open up Apple's unique software to applications developers, or Scully's need to call the strategic signals -- or simply an inevitable power struggle between two strong-willed personalities? We may never know the real answer to that question.

Confronted by Scully with an "either/or" decision, the board unwisely went with Scully and fired Jobs. As Jobs said later, "How can you get fired from the company you founded?" But fired he was and cut adrift at age thirty to rethink his future. In his prescient graduation address at Stanford University in 2005, the year after he was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jobs acknowledged that his firing freed him from carrying the burdens of managing a large enterprise. It also permitted him to pursue his creative desires, unencumbered by managerial tasks he didn't enjoy and wasn't especially good at.

For the next twelve years, Jobs flourished while Apple floundered. He founded a new computer company called NeXt that enabled him to start all over in designing his ideal computer. Then he bought a small computer graphics subsidiary of Lucas Productions from George Lucas and turned it into Pixar animation studios. Pixar became the greatest producer of animated films of all time, highlighted by Toy Story 1, 2, and 3. At the height of its success, he sold Pixar to Disney in 2006, taking a large ownership position in that company and joining its board of directors.

Meanwhile, Apple stumbled after Jobs left, as Scully demonstrated that he lacked the insights or leadership abilities to keep Apple's success going through creative designers and exciting new products. His termination led to a succession of outside recruits, including Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio, all of whom fell victim to their inability to lead and inspire Apple's people. In a historic turn of events, the Apple board purchased NeXt in its desperation in 1996 and brought Jobs back in an undefined role.

But this was not a rapid turnaround. Jobs led the design of the iMac, which was widely appreciated by Apple devotees, but failed to stem the steady slide of Apple's market share, which dipped below 3%. Apple's stock continued to slide. By 2003 it was worth no more than when Jobs returned to Apple seven years earlier. My former company, Medtronic, had a market capitalization in 2003 that was ten times Apple's; today, the tables are reversed as Apple is the world's most valuable company with a share value that is ten times Medtronic's.

Then came the iPod, which to computer gurus seemed like a diversion from the computer business, and perhaps it was. But its linkage to reams of legal music files through iTunes wiped out both the player business and the compact disc market. More importantly, it paved the way for integrated information/entertainment devices like the iPhone and iPad, putting Apple well ahead of established competitors in those fields.

It is worth noting that Apple is the only integrated computer company with its own unique hardware, software and retail stores. The latter has created the highest sales per square foot in the history of retailing, featuring only Apple products and authorized accessories.

To me, the most important lesson of Steve Jobs' life is the way in which he learned from his own hardships -- of being an adopted child, of being fired, and of facing death every day for seven years. He accepted these hardships not just as part of life, but as opportunities to go his own way in making a difference in the world.

And make a difference he did! No one in our lifetime has made more unique contributions to the worlds of innovation, of business, or of consumer stimulation. Let us hope that in celebrating his life many other young people will be inspired to go their own ways, trust their intuition, and pursue their dreams and their visions. That could be Steve Jobs' greatest legacy of all.

 

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