Steve Jobs: a modern Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein?

The death of Apple’s iconic founder has folk reaching for the hyperbole.

The sad death of Steve Jobs at the age of 56 yesterday was greeted by an outpouring of grief on the internet, and a flood of tributes from everyone from Barack Obama to David Cameron. But will he really be remembered by the history books as a creative and entrepreneurial force on a par with Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein, as some commentators are suggesting?

There's no doubt that Steve Jobs was really rather good at getting cool technologies from the lab into the hands of consumers fast, and wrapped in shiny plastic and aluminium that helps Apple products garner admiring glances. The Apple logo, seen glowing on the lids of sleek laptops, is surely the most admired corporate symbol in the world -- certainly the Apple brand is the most precious of any firm according to brands agency Millward Brown. Apple is also the most valuable technology firm by market capitalisation, and at one point this year it was the most valuable company in the world; surpassing even Exxon Mobil.

The figures speak for themselves: Apple posted profits of around £6.1billion in its most recent quarter. It did that not just by selling Macintosh computers -- which actually have a market share of only around 4 per cent of all PCs that are sold, or about 4 million Macs a quarter -- but it sold over 20 million iPhones, 9 million iPads and 7.5 million iPods. These last three categories are what took Apple from moderate success to superstardom, and Steve Jobs' insistence on classy design, ease of use and an ecosystem of applications are writ large on all three.

One can certainly make the case that it was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak who had by far the greatest technical input into Apple's first computers. Jobs was interested in design, and especially fonts, but he actually spent a lot of time running around trying to win orders and raise finances. But Jobs' gift for helping to get the look and feel right, his intuition for what customers really want -- even if they don't yet know it themselves -- and his business acumen are all clearly top notch. He didn't only make Apple a success: he also fixed up Pixar, eventually selling it to Disney for $7.4billion, and NeXT, which he then sold on to Apple.

The vast numbers of people expressing their sadness for his death yesterday -- at one point Twitter was seeing a record 10,000 tweets per second, with many using the hashtags # iSad or # thankyousteve -- is another sign of how his deft touch could give some semblance of personality to seemingly functional things like MP3 players and phones. For others, the magic was all in Steve's head, and Apple fans are merely caught up in what some now call Steve's "reality distortion field", or RDF.

Reality distortion field?

RDF was first coined by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981 to describe Jobs' charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Mac project. Others have used it to describe the effect of his keynotes, or "Stevenotes", in which the consummate showman in trademark jeans and black turtleneck sweater had audiences in rapturous applause for, occasionally, incremental improvements to existing gadgets.

But whatever you think of him, was Stephen Fry right to say when he resigned earlier this year that, "There are few more important people on this planet"? Was Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank which distributes the iPhone in Japan, right to compare him to Leonardo da Vinci? Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor, said Jobs will be remembered "With Edison and Einstein, and whose ideas will shape the world for generations to come."

David Cameron said, "Steve Jobs transformed the way we work and play," and yet if one doesn't own an Apple gadget it's hard to see quite how. Sure, other gadgets such as smartphones have been heavily influenced by the iPhone, but equally just as many Apple products were influenced by their predecessors. Apple didn't invent the smartphone, although it made it far, far more capable and appealing. It didn't event the mouse or the personal computer; it didn't invent portable music players and it didn't invent tablet computers, either.

Perhaps, as Steve Wozniak noted yesterday, Jobs' real brilliance was not just innovation, but also timing. He knew a thing or two about product development, but also when to stand on the shoulders of giants. Ultimately, he knew what a lot of customers wanted; even before they knew themselves.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”