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Steve Jobs obituary
1955–2011: Computing entrepreneur and inventor, and the co-founder, chairman and recognisable face of Apple
Steve Jobs, who has died aged 56 of pancreatic cancer, made an unprecedented impact on the world’s consumer electronics markets with a string of successful products, including the iPod media player, iPhone smartphone and iPad tablet computer. In little more than a decade, he took Apple – the company he co-founded in 1976, and returned to in 1997 – from near-bankruptcy to being the world’s second most valuable company by market capitalisation, after the oil giant Exxon, with around bn in the bank.
The iPod, iPhone and iPad were all relatively late to market, expensive, and, in their initial versions, lacked important features. But Apple’s products not only came to dominate their rivals, they redefined large areas of three entire industries: music, mobile telephony and personal computing. Through iTunes Jobs provided a simple way for users to buy digital content where previously they would have pirated it. Through his animation studio, Pixar, and films such as Toy Story (1995), he also helped change the movie industry. Few entrepreneurs – one thinks of Henry Ford, or Conrad Hilton – have had as much impact.
To an unusual degree, Jobs was responsible for Apple’s success. He was described as a control freak and was known to have rejected hundreds of ideas in the quest for his idea of perfection. In a speech to a conference held for Apple’s third-party software developers in 1997, Jobs apologised for putting "a bullet in the head" of some things they had been working on, but he had a larger vision. He said: "Focusing is about saying no. You’ve got to say no, no, no … and the result of that focus is going to be some really great products where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts."
Although it went largely unnoticed at the time, Jobs then explained the strategy that was to lead to Apple’s recovery. "One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to try to sell it. I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room, and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it, and I know that it’s the case.
"As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’, not with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market that.’ I think that’s the right path to take."
The ultimate aim was, of course, to make money. His schoolfriend and early collaborator, Steve Wozniak, had done things for fun, but Jobs’s line on any technology was: "How does that fit into a larger cohesive vision that allows you to sell bn, bn of products a year?"
Jobs’s desire to deliver the best possible customer experience led him to try to control, or at least influence everything, including the design of the chips Apple used, the hardware, software and the online services. He even opened hundreds of shops to sell Apple products. He launched new products himself, in carefully crafted "Stevenotes" that attracted adoring crowds and received huge press coverage.
His micro-management enabled him to go against industry conventions in his quest for ease of use and simplification. The iPhone, for example, was launched in the US with one basic model from one network operator. Apple also authorised and controlled the applications available from its online App Store, and if a user wanted Adobe Flash – used on millions of websites and the standard for delivering online video – they could not run it without unlocking their iPhone. Jobs could be regarded as a benign dictator. His customers loved him for it, but he was a dictator nonetheless.
Nothing in the first 45 years of Jobs’s life suggested that he would have such an impact. Born in San Francisco, the child of two graduate students, he was adopted, and named, by Paul and Clara Jobs. He grew up in Mountain View, close to the heart of Silicon Valley. While at Homestead high school, Cupertino, he went to extracurricular lectures at Hewlett-Packard – the Valley’s founding technology company – in nearby Palo Alto, and he and Wozniak got summer jobs there.
After finishing high school in 1972, Jobs moved north to study at Reed, an expensive liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. He dropped out after one term, but continued to go to some classes, including a course on calligraphy. That came back to him 10 years later, he said, and "we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography." He grew his hair and a beard, slept on friends’ floors, and sometimes went to a Hare Krishna temple for free meals. Like many drop-outs at that Beatles-inspired time, his ambition was to visit a guru in India, which he eventually did with a friend from Reed, Dan Kottke. When they got there, the guru had died.
At this point, Jobs had a limited education, and no obvious talents, apart from a notorious ability to talk people into things. (Later this became known as his "reality distortion field".) However, he did have a devoted friend who was an electronics genius. Wozniak could design circuits with fewer chips than anyone else, and he enjoyed the challenge. It was a talent that Jobs exploited in the creation of Apple Computer. However, they were a team. Without Jobs’s ambition, constant prodding and the talents that he rapidly developed – high design standards, the ability to make deals and, soon, great marketing skills – Wozniak might well have spent a quiet life designing hardware at HP. Woz could design computers, but Jobs could exploit markets.
In his book about Apple, Infinite Loop (2000), Michael Malone said Jobs "had begun the summer [of 1976] almost a stranger to personal computing. He would finish it as the best businessman in the industry." The first Apple computer was a hobbyist machine in a crude wooden box. It was assembled by hand at Jobs’s parents’ house and sold for 6.66. It made Jobs realise that, in order to compete, Apple had to be set up as a proper company, with financial backing and an experienced chief executive. That happened with an investment from a former Intel employee, Mike Markkula, and the appointment of Apple’s first chief executive, Mike Scott.
Woz’s follow-up, the Apple II, was beautifully designed, and its easily accessible expansion slots meant it could be adapted for almost any purpose. Its built-in colour graphics and ability to plug into a TV set were marked advantages over rivals that appeared the same year, the Commodore PET and the Tandy TRS80. Thanks to Jobs, the Apple II also had a strikingly original case, a helpful manual and consumer-friendly advertising. It was a great success, dominating the US market until the IBM PC was launched in August 1981. Upgraded versions continued to sell for many years.
The Apple II’s success also enabled Apple Computer to go public in December 1980. Its share price more than doubled on the opening day, valuing the young company at .8bn.
However, the arrival of wealth and fame had an unexpected consequence. In February 1981, Wozniak was injured after crashing his Beechcraft Bonanza while taking off from a local airport. Apple’s development had to continue without him, and Jobs took over the direction of the Macintosh project from its originator, Jef Raskin. This would be Jobs’s computer, not Wozniak’s.
The Mac was intended to be the first mass-market computer based on using a mouse and a graphical user interface. These ideas had been developed by Alan Kay and other scientists at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). They had been tried in the high-priced Xerox Star workstation and, later, in Apple’s Lisa (,995), without finding commercial success.
Jobs wanted the Mac to be an appliance that would appeal to ordinary consumers rather than hobbyists, scientists and businesses. As he pointed out, there were no user groups for particular brands of washing machine. It led to a simplified, closed-box design that was cute but did not take you very far. Kay criticised it in a memo: "Have I got a deal for you: a Honda with a one-quart gas tank."
The Mac was launched with one of the most famous TV commercials in history, titled 1984, and given a single showing during the Super Bowl of January that year. It associated IBM, at the time the major force in personal computers, with the Big Brother of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There were also 20-page adverts in the major US magazines. Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, appeared on stage with Jobs at the Mac’s launch, praising the machine and promising Microsoft’s software support. Versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint were all written for the Mac. Unfortunately, after an initial burst, the Mac failed to sell in the expected quantities.
In 1985 Apple closed half its six factories, shed 1,200 employees (a fifth of its staff) and declared its first quarterly loss. Jobs lost a boardroom battle against John Sculley – the man he had hired from Pepsi as chief executive officer with the immortal line: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?" – and was forced out of the company. The Mac was redesigned as a conventional three-piece system with expansion slots, and Macintosh II was launched in 1987. It was particularly successful in the design and publishing industries. In a Playboy interview, Jobs said: "I feel like somebody just punched me in the stomach and knocked all my wind out. I’m only 30 years old and I want to have a chance to continue creating things. I know I’ve got at least one more great computer in me. And Apple is not going to give me a chance to do that."
Jobs set up a new company, NeXT, to produce a powerful, futuristic Unix workstation for business and higher education users, taking several Apple employees, including members of the Mac team. Although the company attracted a lot of financial backing, and Tim Berners-Lee developed the world wide web on a NeXT Cube, sales were dismal. The company ditched the hardware and switched to selling the operating system, but it was still failing. However, by this stage, Jobs had been transformed. When he launched the NeXT in the UK – not at some boring hotel but from the stage of the London Palladium – he was beautifully groomed and a very polished performer. He was a superstar, albeit a (temporarily) irrelevant one.
Everything changed after Microsoft launched Windows 95, which finally made the mouse and graphical user interface ubiquitous. Apple’s annual turnover slumped from .1bn in 1994 to .9bn in 1998, it lost money, and there were several attempts to sell the company. Apple’s board installed one of its members, Gil Amelio, to turn things around, but that did not work either. As Jobs said later: "The products suck! There’s no sex in them any more!"
Mac OS software development had stalled, and Amelio knew he had to buy in a new operating system to replace it. The early betting was on Jean-Louis Gassée’s BeOS. (Gassée had replaced Jobs as head of Macintosh development, then left to develop the BeBox as a Mac replacement.) However, at the end of 1996, Amelio bought NeXT instead. Jobs, the super-salesman, had struck again. Apple paid 9m for NeXT after telling Gassée that his 5m price was too high.
Jobs was now back at Apple as Amelio’s adviser, though it was something of a reverse takeover: former NeXT staff such as Avie Tevanian and Jon Rubinstein took charge of Apple’s software and hardware respectively. Whatever his official status, no one had any doubt who was running the show. This time, Jobs staged the boardroom coup, and he became "interim CEO" in September 1997.
There had long been a pseudo-religious element to Apple’s following, and Jobs’s return was akin to the Second Coming for the Mac faithful. It was an amazing example of the American dream: the adopted son who spent time in the wilderness (Oregon, India), started a company in a garage, achieved fame and fortune, was booted out and then returned in triumph.
Turning Apple around was not easy, even for Jobs. He killed off weak products such as the Apple Newton, dramatically simplified the product line and started a process of creating eye-catching designs. More than a dozen Mac models were replaced by the teardrop-shaped iMac, followed by the portable iBook and a NeXT-like G4 Cube. NeXT’s NextStep was adapted to provide the new operating system, Mac OS X. Jobs even secured an investment from Microsoft and a promise to keep Microsoft Office available for the Mac.
Curiously, Jobs kept repeating the process that he had used with the original Macintosh. Products were developed in secret under his intense supervision, before being given a big-bang public launch, followed by huge advertising. He also kept to the idea of making things more and more like household appliances, removing expansion slots, and even sealing in batteries. However, the world had changed since 1984. Technology was no longer the domain of hobbyists and businesses, and ordinary consumers were now buying computers to do email and surf the relatively new world wide web. Jobs wanted to delight customers, and now there were customers who wanted to be delighted.
The Mac alone, however, would have left Apple with limited prospects in a Windows world. As Jobs had said before the NeXT takeover: "If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it’s worth – and get busy on the next great thing. The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago."
True to his word, Jobs went in a different direction, launching the iPod in October 2001 and the iTunes music store in April 2003. These changed the music industry, and put Apple on a growth path. When Jobs followed up with the iPhone in January 2007, he was confident enough to drop the computer part of Apple’s name. Annual sales soared from bn in 2000 to bn in 2010, and are still rising rapidly, thanks to new versions of the iPhone and the iPad. Indeed, the iPad is already a bigger business than Macintosh.
Apple’s decade of growth may be considered even more remarkable in the light of Jobs’s health problems. In 2004 he had an operation for a neuroendocrine pancreatic tumour, a relatively rare form of cancer. The following year, he talked about death in an inspiring speech at Stanford University: "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
In January 2009 Jobs missed giving his usual Apple Stevenote, saying he was suffering from weight loss due to a hormonal imbalance. He took a six-month medical leave of absence, during which time he had a liver transplant, before returning to work. In January 2011, he took another medical leave of absence before stepping down in August as Apple’s CEO.
Although Jobs was idolised by Apple fans, he was not universally admired, partly because of his perfectionism, secrecy and hard-driving management style. A Wired magazine article quoted Rubinstein (now at HP), saying: "We have cells, like a terrorist organisation," with the company’s former chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki adding: "Steve proves that it’s OK to be an asshole."
Some never forgave Jobs for cheating Wozniak out of a few thousand dollars – a bonus payment from Atari for reducing the chip count of its Breakout game. Wozniak, while working for HP in the mid-1970s, had done most of the work. Jobs also refused for some time to acknowledge a daughter, Lisa, born in 1978 to Chrisann Brennan. He aroused local ire by buying a historic mansion in the Woodside area of California and leaving it to decay when he moved to Palo Alto. Preservationists took Jobs to court to try to save it, but lost on appeal, and it was demolished in February 2011.
Jobs was a quintessential Silicon Valley hero, following on from HP’s Bill Hewlett and David Packard and preceding Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. He built one of the world’s richest and most successful corporations against all the odds, using his own taste, talents and willpower. He was, of course, in the right place at the right time – the start of the personal computer industry – and he was well placed to catch the wave as analogue industries changed from vinyl, tapes, film, paper and other physical formats to digital ones. But Jobs was unique in his ability to ride that wave, and shape it in ways that no rival could emulate.
Jobs is survived by his wife, Laurene Powell, whom he married in a Buddhist ceremony in 1991, and their children, Reed, Erin and Eve; by Lisa; and by a sister, the novelist Mona Simpson.
• Steven Paul Jobs, businessman, born 24 February 1955; died 5 October 2011
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