In reading the new biography of Steve Jobs, one is struck by the question–Why was Apple so much more successful when Jobs returned after his decade-plus long ouster. Why couldn’t it have been so successful the first time around?
First, I’d like to establish that Apple was having trouble when Steve Jobs left. Of course, the Apple II was the hit that put Apple on the map to begin with. And by 1984, when the infamous Superbowl commercial aired, Apple had established itself as one of the iconic brands in computing. But Apple had not been able to build on the initial success of the Apple II. The Apple III was a flop. LISA turned out to be a flop. According to the biography, the Macintosh enjoyed strong initial sales for about 6 months, but then sales tapered off as people saw that it didn’t have the computing power to back up the beautiful graphical user interface well. The computer only had 128K RAM, and did not even have a hard drive. So it ran rather slowly. And let’s face it, for all the issues with the personalities involved, Jobs, Scully’s, and other coworkers, if the company had been hitting home runs, the founder probably would not have left.
Then, Jobs started Next, which made fast computers with a good graphical user interface. But they were too expensive for a mass market, and this company did not do well.
How did other companies handle the limits in computing power at that time? They compromised, and designed products which in Jobs’ view were “crappy.” They did not have as slick a graphical interface. But although they did not look as good, they were priced right for the market, and they began to get the most market share.
Was Apple successful when Jobs returned? Of course. Depending on the day and the price of oil, Apple has become the most valuable company in the world, surpassing Exxon. The second time around, Jobs created and developed: iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad. An unbelievably huge string of hits. And the biography establishes the many talents Steve Jobs had: having a vision to unite technology and the arts; communicating that vision to his employees, customers, and collaborating companies; identifying top talent; and being unwilling to compromise in product development and in negotiations.
But Steve Jobs was basically the same guy the second time around. So what was different? Some might suggest he was more mature and more humble, having failed at Next Computer, and, having been through some difficult times at Pixar before it became a blockbuster factory. Perhaps. But reading the biography, it seems he was basically the same guy who was tough on his employees, and absolutely convinced when he was right about the product. He never became a wishy-washy consensus builder, humbled into believing decisions were best made by a committee vote.
What changed was that advances in computing power allowed him to do what he wanted to do all along–merge technology and art at the right price with a sleek form factor. He always wanted a sleek product with a graphical user interface, and an intuitive design. But the original Macintosh was underpowered. The computers at Next had adequate power, but they were big and too expensive for a mass market. Finally, with Apple 2.0, computer chips became powerful enough. Jobs left Apple in 1985 and returned in 1996. According to Moore’s law, the number of transistors which can be placed on an integrated circuit at a reasonable price doubles approximately every two years. That means that the decade Jobs was gone would see five doublings in computer power–or a jump of 32 times the computing power. Now Jobs was able to build sleek products at a much lower price.
Why couldn’t other companies compete with Apple 2.0? Although they had access to the same computing power and the same microchips, they just did not have Jobs’ vision for the elegant, graphical, end-to-end user experience. You can give a lot of artists the same paint brushes, but that doesn’t mean they can all paint as well. Some painters, musicians, and technology CEO’s are better artists than others. Jobs was the best.
The first time around, computers just weren’t powerful enough to build products cool enough to do what he wanted. One can envision great technologies, just as Leonardo DaVinci envisioned flying machines long before the underlying science and materials were available to make these machines possible. Jobs was taken too soon, but he did live long enough to see technology advance to the point that many of his product visions could come to fruition. Who knows what more he could have designed had he lived longer.