07 October, 2011

A Present-Day Himself

The untimely passing of Steve Jobs has brought a torrent of praise.  Most of that praise is well deserved.  His influence on modern life, whether one is immediately aware of it or not, is significant.  However, the enthusiasm by some to gush over his achievements ends up doing him a disservice.  Reports have compared Jobs to Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso and Leonardo Da Vinci – sometimes in the same sentence.   This is not fair to any of them.

It’s fair to say Steve Jobs was a visionary.  His gift was not so much in either the creation of the hardware nor the coding of the software, or even in the specific design of either.  Jobs’ brilliance was in gathering people who are experts in those fields and motivating them to make it work like this and look like that.  The products which Jobs presided over the design of, are perfect marriages of complexity, simplicity and beauty. (yes, it’s a ménage a trois – what’s your point?)  This is not to say that Apple is never overrated.  I believe they have cheapened their brand somewhat over recent years by overstating the significance of features and the careful rationing of some of those product features.  Early iPhones didn’t even have 3G at a time when any other phone worth talking about did.  One of the big new features of the iPhone 4, released last year, was video calling – a feature I’d had on my Nokia since 2008, and it wasn’t state of the art even then.  And it challenges credulity to think that the new features of the iPad 2 couldn’t have been worked into the iPad 1, released less than a year earlier.  If nothing else, it would have saved the poor buggers at Foxconn a lot of retooling.

I don’t attribute any of this to Steve Jobs personally.  I am neither a fanboy, nor a hater, just trying to keep some perspective.  Steve Jobs did not invent the Graphical User Interface or the mouse.  That would be Xerox.  In fairness, Steve Jobs never claimed to have invented those things, nor did he ever encourage the notion that he did, but listening to some reports today, it would be easy to believe it was all Apple’s idea because the Macintosh was the first commercially available computer to have a GUI.  This was Steve Jobs’ real talent – to be an aggregator of ideas.  He didn’t invent the MP3 player.  Instead, he perfected the idea and expanded the notion to become a smartphone and a tablet computer.  This list of what Steve Jobs did and didn’t do sums it up very nicely.

That’s one reason why comparisons with inventors and designers of the past are inappropriate.  The other reason is that it’s just so unnecessary.

Seriously, how brilliant do you have to be, how broad your influence, before you get to stand alone?  How great must your achievements be before they don’t have to be described in terms of what others did?  Steve Jobs was not a modern day Da Vinci.  That’s the difference between being a couple of decades ahead of your time and a couple of centuries ahead of your time.  He was not Pablo Picasso, the main reason being that Steve Jobs’ designs are beautiful.  I’m not saying that Picasso wasn’t a great artist but I wouldn’t want to have to look at one of his works for several hours a day.  The Edison analogy probably comes closest to being fair.  They were both showmen as much as innovators, and that showmanship was invaluable to promoting the product.  Both created a simple music player that would evolve into something that changed the way we live.  But who was Thomas Edison the contemporary equivalent of?  The answer is: a long line of people who were equal parts genius and madman, looking everywhere for an idea that would make them rich and famous.  Edison managed to find a couple.

I stopped describing Paul Kelly as a modern-day Henry Lawson (although I still believe it’s a fair comparison) after reading how Lawson was offended at being called an Australian Rudyard Kipling.  Although it was meant as a compliment, Henry Lawson was not Rudyard Kipling – he was Henry Lawson.  Every teenage guitarist wants to be the next Jimi Hendrix.  There are those in their 50s still trying to be.  The point they all miss is that Hendrix wasn’t trying to be the next Robert Johnson, Chet Atkins or BB King – he wanted to be the first Jimi Hendrix.  He succeeded, and to this day, there has never been a better one.  That’s why my advice to young guitarists is that if you want to be like Hendrix, forget about Hendrix.  Throw everything out and start again.  That’s exactly what Steve Jobs did.  He wasn’t trying to be the next anyone.

This is not to say that some geniuses don’t start out trying to emulate others.  Bob Dylan wanted to be Woody Guthrie.  Today though, you would never describe Bob Dylan as ‘the Woody Guthrie of the 60s.’  If you had to explain to someone who Bob Dylan is, the most appropriate answer would probably be, “Are you nuts?  He’s Bob friggin’ Dylan!”

Steve Jobs was not a modern day Edison, Picasso or Da Vinci.  He was not Archimedes, Bach, Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, John Logie Baird or Frank Lloyd Wright.  He was Steve Jobs.  If that in itself isn’t good enough for you, then you’re probably in for a life of disappointments.


  1. woody who?

  2. well put. A refreshing perspective in the face of that monster death. Death brings out the best in Americans who love their heroes well buried.

  3. Very well said. I think when we make gods of mortals then we make fools of ourselves!! :)