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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.