Nicholas Pell
Oct 6, 2011

The Wizard of i: Steve Jobs and innovation

“This wasn’t built by a magician. This was built by a wizard . . . a man who can actually do the things a magician pretends to.” Cutter, "The Prestige"

Steve Jobs died yesterday at the age of 56. It is an age too young for any man to die, but surely Steve Jobs is not just any man. More than just creating consumer products, he changed the world, the way we think about it and how we interact with it and each other.

Do you remember the days of having a media library comprised of clunky CDs and DVDs? Do you love being able to carry around your entire media collection in a single device no bigger than a pack of cigarettes? You can thank Steve Jobs. When everyone else tried to figure out how to put the digital media genie back in the bottle, Steve wanted to make it user friendly and, of course, profitable. So we got the iPod, a device that revolutionized the music industry and, to a lesser extent, our lives.

The iPod is one obvious example of Jobs’s innovation ethos. Rather than think about what’s “possible,” Jobs started with what consumers wanted. Design technicians and engineers then moved mountains to make sure we got it. A notoriously difficult to please man, Steve wasn’t a tyrant lording over his fiefdom. Rather, he was a perfectionist who wanted nothing but the absolute best associated with his brand. That’s the reason MacBooks are the best-selling computers of all time. Jobs had a penchant for starting with dreams customers didn’t know they had and working backward to the finished product.

Jobs never took the easy way out. When unhappy with things at Apple, he started his own company, NeXT Computer, Inc. When he decided he didn’t like the iPod Mini, he didn’t care about its being the best-selling product Apple had — it went into the dustbin, replaced with the iPod Nano. When the AppleTV didn’t take off as planned, Jobs kept at it, boldly declaring the much-maligned product a personal hobby.

In 2011, after Jobs’s death, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world without him. The point isn’t hero worship; Jobs was fond of invoking the Beatles as a model of how true innovation comes from collaboration, not individuals. Another source of his genius lay in recognizing that the power and intelligence of groups trumps that of the individual. Without Jobs, however, there would be no iPods, iPads or iPhones, three consumer electronic products that revolutionized how people relate to information, media and the world. The sleek, futuristic design of the Mac post-Jobs’s return to Apple in the mid-1990s brought a little piece of science-fiction style into everyone’s home.

The world will certainly see innovators again, and those of Jobs’s caliber. The early 20th century saw men like Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison. Jobs acted as a sort of latter-day Tesla to Bill Gates’s Edison. While I don’t believe in the concept of “Great Men,” I certainly believe that a man can be great. Steve Jobs was such a man. Tied into the Zeitgeist but able to see beyond it, Jobs will be looked back on by future students of history as a man who got the 21st century rolling.