The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Like most people interested in technology and business, I picked up a copy of the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. It is a good book and will mostly satisfy any outsiders’ curiosity at the man’s life, his idiosyncrasies (there were many), his faults and fallacies, and his achievements. What I want to talk about here is his legacy.

He was not a perfect person

FIrst off, and just to clear the discussion, Steve Jobs was clearly not a perfect person. He had many issues. He was a jerk a lot of the time, to a lot of people. He liberally took credit for other people’s ideas. If you hated him before, the book will not change your opinion of the man.

But he also had many strengths. He was a natural marketer and negotiator. He was diligent, and learnt through his failures to be a great manager. And of course he was a visionary, in the truest sense of the word. This discussion, however, is not about how much I admire him (or not), but what I took away as key lessons from his endeavors.

“Open” and “Closed” are both valid choices

One of the most straightforward take-aways from Jobs’ work in the past 10 years is that vertical integration remains a valid business model. Tech fans like to frame this debate as “Open” versus “Closed”, and associate all kinds of philosophical and ideological meaning with it; and clearly Jobs himself had some ideological bias towards “Closed”, but at the end of the day, they are both perfectly valid business choices.

As my favorite business school professor likes to say, no company is 100% “open”, nor is any company 100% “closed”. “Open” and “closed” are a set of strategic trade-offs, just like any strategic decision is. For Apple, “opening” up their platform, such as allowing other hardware vendors to make Mac clones (or iOS clones), clearly has major pros as well as cons. The question is does the trade-off fit with the broader set of strategic choices the company has made – in Apple’s case, “opening” its software platforms clearly contradicts with its vertical integration strategy, and causes it more harm than benefits.

Even Apple itself provides a great example of why sometimes it might make sense to go the other direction. Jobs strongly resisted porting iTunes to the Windows platform. His argument was that by bundling iPods with Macs via the iTunes software, he could lead to additional sales of Macs. This argument had some merit, but it also was clearly inhibiting the growth of iPods as an individual product category. In the end, Jobs was smart enough to be pragmatic and allow his team to develop iTunes for Windows – “hell froze over,” as he would say.

This pragmatism, and the realization of “open” and “closed” as trade-offs (rather than which is better in an absolute sense), is extremely important, as an organization would otherwise be limiting its own strategic direction. For example, we should not be at all surprised if after the Google-Motorola deal is complete that Android becomes a much more “closed” offering.

The (revised) 80/20 rule – the 20% that makes a product “insanely great” takes 80% of the time[1]

One of my main revelations from the biography was just how hard it was to get something perfect. For example, it was a ridiculous amount of work for Steve Jobs to get the music labels onboard with selling their music on the iTunes store, and this had little direct relationship with the sales of iPod hardware. But Jobs believed, correctly, that making the entire user experience with mp3s as painless as possible would reap great rewards in the long run.

It was certainly eye-opening to me to see how difficult it can be sometimes to make progress on the smallest things. To execute against a simple strategy, such as “get publishers to launch their books and magazines on the iPad,” it took Jobs and his senior team countless pitches and meetings.

As most companies don’t spend the 80% of work it takes to get that last 20% right, they often look at what Apple has been pulling off and see magic while showing disbelief. That was the industry’s reaction when Jobs pulled off the music label deals for iTunes. That was the industry’s reaction when he announced the iPhone. And clearly, almost two years after the iPad was announced, competitors are still “flummoxed” in terms of a response.

Focus is key

A corollary of the previous point is that focus is critical. (Larry Page should take the advice that Steve Jobs offered him very seriously – focus on five products.) From a management theory perspective, this is nothing new, but few organizations are as relentless as Apple is at its execution.

Apple’s entire product portfolio can be laid out on one table. It is only because of this, that Apple’s senior management can have enough time to make each one of those products great as opposed to good.

On the flip side, the inability to focus is also why incumbents give startups opportunities to establish a foothold in the market. For example, from a pure strategy perspective, there are few reasons why Facebook cannot completely own the mobile check-in space (Foursquare), or the daily deal space (Groupon), or any of the other hot social trends. Or, in the case of Google, why they cannot completely shut out Kayak, Yelp, or any other vertical search providers. Yet both Facebook and Google clearly haven’t been able to do so. Leaving aside many other factors, the 80/20 rule above is one major explanation.

If Facebook focused exclusively on check-ins, or if Google focused exclusively on one or two search verticals, there would be little that these hot startups can leverage to compete. But focus is hard because it means saying no to incremental growth opportunities and leaving money on the table. And when a company feels it is invincible it is hard to say no. It took Steve Jobs ten years in the “wilderness” and Apple 90 days from bankruptcy to realize how valuable having a focus is.

The organization is his greatest legacy

The last revelation I had from reading the book is still to be proven, but it could be the most profound. During Jobs’ second stint at Apple, he had a clear vision that went beyond building great products and making Apple the best technology company globally; he wanted to build a lasting organization.

Ironically, one of the biggest criticisms that people have for Apple is that it is a one-man show. And over the years investors have continually undervalued the stock because of this. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t help himself in this regard, due to his inclination to take credit (as the book showed, Jony Ive was at times deeply unhappy about not getting enough credit). But consequentially this may also make it all the more magical when people realize what a lasting organization he has built.

What is magical about Apple is not its products. Its products are the output of a process, and it is that process (and the organization which embodies it) that is magical.

Wait, critics of Apple say, just wait until it has a flop – Apple is so hit-driven that all it takes is one flop. Interestingly, people said the exact same of that other Steve Jobs creation – Pixar. Pixar has defied all conventional wisdom in the film-making industry, by making hit after hit after hit after hit[2]. Pixar’s process of creating its products has already become textbook material.

Apple’s process is just as powerful. It is a process that defies conventional business thinking (“open” trumps “closed”?); it is a process that combines a passion for perfection with a relentless focus; and it is a process that goes beyond the influence of any individual[3].

Obviously, the jury is still out on this one, but I have plenty of confidence that Apple will continue to surprise and delight us, for many years to come. This will be the biggest test of Jobs, and it will be by far his biggest legacy.


[1] Indeed, this is perhaps the counter-definition of 80/20, as many companies would make it a strategy to be content with achieving 80% greatness with 20% work, in the name of efficiency.

[2] Granted, Cars 2 looks uninspired, but I will not pass more judgment as I haven’t seen it or the original Cars

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