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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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article