Co.Design

What Made Steve Jobs So Great?

Steve Jobs wasn't an engineer or a designer. But he was one of the greatest users of technology of all time, and that made all the difference.

[Apple's visionary co-founder, Steve Jobs, died yesterday. This story was written after his resignation in August.--Ed.]

In the wake of Steve Jobs's resignation, let's consider the greatest decision he ever made. It didn't happen in a garage in Cupertino, sweating with Steve Wozniak as they dreamed up a computer for the common man. Or in a conference room, as managers told him that no one would ever pay $500 for a portable music player. Or in another conference room, as new managers told him no one would ever pay $400 for a cellphone. Rather, it was in a dusty basement of the Apple campus.

Jobs had just recently come back to the company, after a 12-year layoff working for two of his own startups: NeXT, which made ultra-high-end computers, and Pixar. He was taking a tour of Apple, becoming reacquainted with what the company had become in the years since he'd left. It must have been a sobering, even ugly sight: Apple was dying at the hands of Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and a litany of competitors who were doing what Apple did, only cheaper, with faster processors.

His tour finally brought him to the workbench of a designer ready to quit after just a year on the job, languishing amid a stack of prototypes. Among them was a monolithic monitor with a teardrop swoop, which managed to integrate all of a computer's guts into a single package. In that basement Jobs saw what middle managers did not. He saw the future. And almost immediately he told the designer, Jonathan Ive, that from here on out they'd be working side-by-side on a new line.

Steve Jobs may not be the greatest technologist or engineer of his generation. But he is perhaps the greatest user of technology to ever live, and it was Apple's great fortune that he also happened to be the company's founder.

Those computers that Ive and Jobs worked on became, of course, the iMac--a piece of hardware designed with an unprecedented user focus, all the way to the handle on top, which made it easy to pull out of the box. ("That's the great thing about handles," Ive told Fast Company in 1999. "You know what they're used for.") And while it seems condescending to say that Jobs's greatest moment was finding someone else who was great, it's not. That single moment in the basement with Ive tells you a great deal about what made Steve Jobs the most influential innovator of our time. It shows you the ability to see a company from the outside, rather than inside as a line manager. He didn't see the proto iMac as a liability or a boondoggle. He saw something that was simply better than what had preceded it, and he was willing to gamble based on that instinct. That required an ability to think first and foremost as someone who lives with technology rather than produces it.

People often say that Jobs is, first and foremost, a great explainer of technology--a charismatic, plainspoken salesman who is able to bend those around him into a "reality distortion field." But charisma can be bent to all sorts of purposes. Those purposes may very well be asinine. So what gives his plain-speaking such force? He always talks about how wonderous it will be to use something, to actually live with it and hold it in your hands. If you listen to Steve Jobs's presentations over the years, he comes across not as the creator of a product so much as its very first fan--the first person to digest its possibilities.

Of course, when Steve Jobs has fancied himself the chief creator, disastrous failures often ensued. His instincts were often wrong. For example, his much ballyhooed Apple Cube, which was in fact a successor to the NeXT cube he'd developed during his Apple hiatus, was a $6,500 dud. He was also openly disdainful of the Internet in the late 1990s. And before his hiatus from Apple, in 1985, his meddling and micro-management had gotten out of control. But the years away reportedly helped him begin ceding more responsibilities to others, and become less of a technology freak and more of a user-experience savant. A reporter who asked Jobs about the market research that went into the iPad was famously told, "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want." Which isn't to say that he doesn't think like a consumer--he just thinks like one standing in the near future, not in the recent past. He is a focus group of one, the ideal Apple customer, two years out. As he told Inc. magazine in 1989, "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."

People also often reduce Jobs's success to a ruthless perfectionism which sometimes led him to scrap a product simply because it didn't feel right, or because some minor feature like a power button or a home screen seemed buggy and unresolved. (Famously, he tore through three prototypes of the iPhone in 2007 before the last passed muster; he also berated Ive early over the details of the USB port in the first iMac.) But that doesn't get to it either. A myopic focus on details can readily destroy as much value as it creates: Just think about the number of times you've sat through a meeting with a boss who harped on details, killing a project before you ever had a chance to explain what it could be.


[The Mac Bashful, a proto tablet computer that Jobs asked Frog Design to mock up in 1983.]

[The forgotten Mac Professional, which presaged an integration of all your productivity gadgets.]

It's almost certain that Jobs has killed far more great ideas than he ever let live--there are 313 patents under his name covering everything from packaging to user interfaces. But those that survived outweighed all the rest, simply because his focus was, continually, on what it would be like to come at some new product raw, with no coaching or presentation but simply as a dumb, weird new thing. Again, that's an ability to see past internal debates, and to look at a potential product with the fresh eyes of a user rather than a creator.

Perhaps the best example of this hides in plain sight, and is a fundamental part of every Apple product. All throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, if you ever opened up a new gadget the first thing you were ever faced with was figuring how the damn thing worked. To solve that, you'd have to wade through piles of instruction manuals written in an engineer's alien English. But a funny thing happened with the iMac: Every year after, Apple's instruction manuals grew thinner and thinner, until finally, today, there are none. The assumption is that you'll be able to tear open the box and immediately start playing with your new toy. Just watch a 3-year-old playing with an iPad. You're seeing a toddler intuit the workings of one of the most advanced pieces of engineering on the planet. At almost no time in history has that ever been possible. It certainly wasn't when the first home computers were introduced, or the first TV remotes, or the first radios. And it was something he was driving for, his entire career. Again from 1989, Inc. asked him, "Do you sometimes marvel at the effect you've had on people's lives?" And Jobs said: "There are some moments. I was in an elementary school just this morning, and they still had a bunch of Apple IIs, and I was kind of looking over their shoulders. Then I get letters from people about the Mac, saying, 'I never thought I could use a computer before I tried this one.'"

There is, however, one decisive factor that Steve Jobs couldn't control: Timing. Yet it was perfect for him. He was born just in time to become a founding father of the personal computer movement. But he was also still young enough that in 1997, he could lead while his own sense of a computer's potential could finally bear fruit.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, computers were being sold on their speed and features. This was the birthing period for computers, when their capabilities were just being limned. But by 2000, all of these had largely become commoditized--it no longer mattered how fast a computer was, when basic issues of usability and integration became so pressing. Just think back to your Windows machine of the time: What did speed matter if you didn't even know what all the menus meant, or if you were hit with some weird bug that flashed pop-ups at you everytime you clicked your mouse?

Before 1997, Jobs was ahead of his time. The computers he made were overpriced for the market, because he thought that usability was more important than capability. But as computers reached maturity and became a feature in every home, his obsessions became more relevant to the market. And in fact, many of Apple's recent signature products, such as the iPad or the iPhone, were based on products first conceived of in the 1990s or even the 1980s--they had to bide their time.

[Image by 37Prime]

All of this isn't to say that Steve Jobs has been Apple's sole arbiter of success: He purportedly has a great eye for talent. Moreover, he has taught his entire organization to play in the span of product generations rather than just product introductions: Apple designers say that now, each design they create has to be presented alongside a mock-up of how that design might evolve in the second or third generation. That should ensure Apple's continued success for as long as a decade. But it's not totally clear that anyone else can equal his talent for being able to look at Apple's product's from the outside view of a user. Tim Cook, his anointed successor, proved his worth by totally revamping Apple's production processes and supply chain. That talent is vital to running the business, and has increased Apple's profits by untold billions. But being able to break apart the nuances of sourcing is the precise opposite of being a usability genius: Cook's career has largely been spent focusing on precisely those things the consumer never sees.

Does Cook have an in-house product critic, who could stand in Jobs's place? Will Cook have as close a working relationship with Ive as Jobs did? Will Ive even stay? And did Steve Jobs create an entire organization that shared his balance of concerns--for the back-end yes, but for usuability first and foremost? The biggest risk is that Apple has taken for granted that its superior design should demand a price premium. That might lull them into thinking that Apple is great, rather than its products. But Apple, all along, has only been as good as its last "insanely great" thing.

Add New Comment

95 Comments

  • Clay Mcandrews

    Steve Jobs was without a doubt one of the best designers of all time. He became a superior innovator of technology design largely in part by his smart design strategies. As he mentioned in his 1989 interview with Inc. Magizine, "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new." He was a future thinker, an extreme one at that. In the year 2000, nobody would have ever thought we'd be surfing the internet, streaming music wirelessly, taking 8 megapixel pictures, and sending emails, all from the palm of our hand. The iPhone has changed the way society goes about their normal everyday lives. 

    Some argue the iPhone makes life easier by giving you instant access to the internet, email, and a large database of apps, all while still giving you the ability to make phone calls. Others argue that it has taken away from the little things in life that might mean a lot. One would have to agree, that the iPhone has, in-fact, made the lives of everyone who owns one, more busy. This is not bad, it's good for everyone who enjoys staying in-touch with their friends and family and networking. I personally would be at a loss without my iPhone because it has all of my contacts, emails, important dates, and ability to search the web on the go. 

    Todays technology is doing well and is constantly on the rise. What might be the most up to date iPhone or computer today, will be old technology a week from now. Steve Jobs has paved the way for the direction Apple and the rest of the technology world is headed. The next question is whether or not his anointed successor, Tim Cook, will be able to keep Apple headed in the right direction. Just the other day, after the death of Jobs, I overheard on the radio that Apple has announced they are currently working on a triangular iPhone. Could this be a design innovation, or a design fail? Steve had made hundreds of design failures, "313 patents are in his name.", but those that survived were definitely a huge success. Maybe Tim Cook is starting off similar to how Jobs did, but right now is not a good time for Apple to be producing products that are a design failure. 

    What Steve Jobs has done is create a company that should someday be the industry standard for smartphone and high performance computers. His designs are timeless and smart, which is why they have done so well. Apple will not fall, it has been built up and supported by to many. The company may not be headed by its head founder anymore, but will continue to flourish. His death was a huge loss for Apple and the rest of the world, but he has inspired so many with his life and designs, and he will continue designing, through us. 

  • Valeria von Doom

    Awesome article. I have faith on those 3-year-old children playing with iPads right now

  • Martha Voutas Donegan

    Great read. Well done. Nice ode to someone who changed us for the good.
    Martha Donegan

  • Tim Hardesty

    Great article. I believe that Jobs greatest contribution is creating Apple Inc, a company with a system that will continue to design, innovate and thrive with out him at the helm. He invested in people because he knew he could not do it alone.

  • Mac

    CEOs take note: Reinvent yourself, find your "Ives", think product generational, price according to the solution value not the commodity value. Nice article. 

  • Diana

    Jen, what you are missing in important fact - the context of Steve Jobs. 
    The Japanese culture is great and, yes, it was 'there' before Apple came into the picture. The point is fighting for your ideas in a culture and industry where all the odds are against you. That's what SJ did and won. Maybe with the price of his life. Would you put all your credit money in a red basket when all the others are blue and want to stay blue?

  • Gord

    Is Apple a hardware company or a software company? Neither! Under Steve Jobs' leadership, Apple is the greatest design company on the planet. How fortunate for Apple and all their employees to have a CEO who cared about design above all else. As many others chase low prices and race to the bottom, Apple and Steve Jobs proved "design matters".

  • Patience Ellis

    I said it before and I'll say it again Co.Design is fabulous and Cliff Kuang - you say it well!

  • Dan

    great discussion, respect to the man for being a marketing genius and popularising gadgets that most of us thought we would never need by telling us we had problems we never realised we had.

    Apple make great products but so do toshiba and creative and HP and SONY and................

    We can all stand to learn a little from Jobs' story. 

  • JVPsaid

    Steve Jobs was one of the most influential individuals of our time. No one person was affiliated with as many products or ideas that not only change the way we DO but also change the way that we THINK. His genius will be missed.

  • Andreashillington

    I agree with westcoastbob, Steve sold the WHY not the how. I'll remember him for his crystal clear vision and design centric approach to the technology world. I hope he will inspire more CEO's to lead with their WHY and prioritize the importance of design. We will miss your inspiration Steve, but your legacy already lives.

  • Jen

    Steve Jobs did his job to make a lot of money for Apple.    But he did so at the cost of creating yet another overpriced overhyped monopolized channel...he is just another capitalist.    I do not revere capitalists, as they are ultimately out to enrich themselves.    I have far more respect for the semiconductor industry who by their efforts advanced humanity in endless ways, they continually halve COMPUTER HARDWARE costs every 18 months for the last 15 years.   They need a pat on the back for saving humanity, but I don't see anyone giving them the credit.

  • Jen

    Japanese stuff has always been easy to use, unclunky.    Buses stop when a button is pressed, since the early seventies.  Yes, so Jobs realized the computer industry was clunky, so what?   Japanese always preferred their own local electronics to computers for that very reason.   That isn't brilliance that is obvious.   Apple dumbed down the computer to the masses...and in the process he ripped off the world...and refused philanthropic endeavors....that doesnt make him brilliant but just a realist, a good businessman, and a greedy human being.

  • Yacko

    It's easy to dis John Sculley but he had similar problems, ideas whose implementation could only come years later. I hope Jobs authorized biography will dish a bit about the Sculley-Jobs relationship and what Jobs saw in Sculley. It seems, given Jobs firing, a missed opportunity and a big what-if if they had worked together, instead of that bad decade that resulted.