Suddenly, Steve Jobs is gone. And only now is his exceptional ability being fully realized. Many of us felt a sense of personal loss at the news of his death. Good tributes to him have appeared in The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg), The NY Times (David Pogue), CNBC (Jim Cramer), and elsewhere.
There is an important political-economic lesson in what Jobs did for the world. It is incorrect to compare him, as many of these eulogists have, to Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. First, Jobs contributions, while immense, were not world-transforming the way Edison’s and Ford’s were. I love my iPhone; it is a wonderful convenience; Edison’s the electric power generator, his light bulb, and Ford’s mass-produced automobile lifted us out of the candle-lit, horse-and-buggy era. Jobs’ genius, after all, did not lie in invention or in devising more efficient systems of production (like Ford’s assembly line), but in something completely invisible to anti-capitalists: entrepreneurship: the independent vision of what to produce. And, in Jobs case, that was backed by the management skills required to execute that vision.
The history of electronics blares to all those who have not stopped up their ears that the first thing a successful enterprise must decide is: what should they produce? For instance, most of the experts said there was no need for a tablet computer like the iPad. Jobs knew better.
When too many business leaders are box-office chasers, trying to determine what people already want, or say they do in “focus groups,” Jobs staked his company on his own independent judgment of what was objectively good. He demanded, oversaw, and masterfully sold to the public, “insanely great” products—products that didn’t follow trends but created them. (Then the trend-followers jumped on the bandwagon he created.)
A case in point. The original Macintosh computer of 1984 introduced the mouse, windows, and menus. (Then these were copied by Bill Gates for Microsoft Windows). But Jobs didn’t create any of these things. As is widely known in the computer industry, Jobs took these transformative interface ideas from Xerox, which had developed them at an experiment facility known as PARC, which Jobs visited. But what demonstrates Jobs’ unique contribution is the fact that Xerox gave Jobs and his team access to their windowed prototype because they had decided that there was no commercial value in what they had developed. Jobs knew better.
Some of us, including me, had to be dragged, kicking and streaming, away from the DOS command line and into the world of the Graphical User Interface. Full disclosure: I’m typing these words on a DOS-based word processor. But it runs inside Windows, which I run as a “virtual machine” on the MacBook Pro. So, in the end, Jobs won over even me, a clinger to the pre-Mac world.
The contemporary i-world—iPhones, iPods, iPads, and iTunes—began in the brain of Steve Jobs, even though he did not invent these things (except, I suppose, the brilliant marketing idea of the iTunes online store). And essential to the vision Jobs supplied was his unique esthetic sensibility, the “coolness factor” embodied in all Apple products. The integration of sleek form with ingenious function was the Jobs trademark.
With all the trend-followers, not one of them has been able to rise to his level of stunning design. Go to a store like Best Buy that has an array of tablet computers. When displayed alongside the iPad, the competing tablets look pedestrian, clunky, and . . . boring. Industrial design is a form of art—not fine art, but an esthetic dimension integrated with functionality. Apple products have always stood well above the crowd, due to the uncompromising standards of Steve Jobs. Those products add a sense of beauty, and a sense of man’s efficacy, to our lives.
In supplying the entrepreneurial vision, embodied in sleek designs, and an ability to lure the market into a better future, Jobs stands as the immortal refutation of Marxism. According to Marx, and all his leftist progeny, a man such as Jobs is a parasite, feeding off the “real” work that is done by muscle power. But it was not the men on the assembly line, let alone those living by the sweat of their brows, who brought us the mouse, the Graphical User Interface, the iPhone, and the iPad. It was the extraordinary mind of Steve Jobs.
The world will be a duller place until the next “man of unborrowed vision,” in Ayn Rand’s phrase, propels us into the future as Steve Jobs did.