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

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.