Sunday, October 9, 2011

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011): Life and Soul of Technology

In the demise of Steve Jobs on October 5, 2011, following his decade long steely battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, the world has undoubtedly lost one of the greatest technology visionaries and business leaders of all time. The world, not merely the domain of technology or the field of consumer electronics, would be poorer by his absence. Over the last two decades, Steve has pioneered a computing and connectivity revolution which has irrevocably changed how the world networks and experiences itself. Through his several product and process contributions, Steve Jobs defined what words like creativity, innovation and connectivity actually mean. He clearly belongs to the rare class of leaders who give depth and substance to the concepts that are abstractly talked about but are never fully and truly experienced by the users.

Given the enormous contributions Jobs has made, his demise has triggered an overwhelming outpouring of tributes from leaders and commoners from all walks of life, and from all nations. Collaborators and competitors have been one in praising the enormous transformation he brought about in the deployment of digital technology to improve and enhance everyday living. Several of the adjectives and superlatives showered on him by the media such as digital diviner, technology visionary, iconic leader, technology titan, gadget genius, master showman, the modern day Thomas Edison, apple of technology, technology talisman, and several others sit easily on Steve Jobs. Even more remarkable is the fact that even as a technologist and businessman, Steve Jobs is compared with some of the greatest artists of all times like Mozart, Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci!

In very simple words, Steve Jobs was an artist and genius extraordinaire who integrated technology and art, hardware and software, materialism and emotion, and business and life as no one else has done so far. He was not only an amazing inventor of product concepts but an astounding integrator of ecosystems. It would be impossible and even superfluous to attempt any more than what is already said, or would doubtless continue to be said, about his unique achievements. This blog post attempts to draw lessons and insights from his leadership as to how “thinking differently” can make highly positive and significantly transformative changes to individuals, societies and nations.

From digital divide to digital connectivity

The greatest contribution of Steve Jobs was in making computers a part of daily living, at work and off work. Ever since Steve Jobs invented the world’s first truly personal computer in 1977, in association with Steve Wozniak (with whom he co-founded Apple in 1976), he kept on transforming the computing and connectivity world with stunning new products. Until the 1980s, computers were for offices and businesses while entertainment devices were for homes and families. By making computers truly and sensitively personal devices, and integrating media in all forms with handheld portable Apple devices such as iPods, iPhones and iPads, Steve has transformed digital divide into digital connectivity. Productivity that comes out of efficient organization of activities, and motivation that results from sensory satisfaction are achieved through Steve’s Apple products, making life both productive and pleasurable.

Equally important has been the socialistic philosophy of Steve Jobs, which probably has not been understood at all. In total contrast to the practice of every other industry or business corporation that offered products at a lower level (so called utilitarian) to one stratum of the society and products at a higher level (so called luxury) to another stratum, Steve offered one standardized high value product to all sections of the society. He also did not believe in the practice of either skimming the market with hyped up value and usurious pricing or fragmenting it with broken technologies and flexible pricing. In fact, his products are the same, whether for billionaires or for commoners. The user experience from his products is so classy, yet so natural and personalized that neither the rich nor the not-so-rich found themselves alienated from his universal designs. He never had to make his iPhone with titanium or platinum or bedeck it with crystals or diamonds for the rich to differentiate it from the standard iPhone for the masses. In a sense, Steve has achieved an immense measure of social equalization with his technological virtuosity, an achievement which political and social campaigns could not ever achieve.
Steve Jobs' digital connectivity is more than a technological feat; it is a transformational phenomenon of social equalization and universal harmonization.

If only more corporate leaders become attuned to this philosophy of providing high value at reasonable cost, industries would be more scale-efficient, waste-resistant and cost-competitive.

Minimalist design for maximal impact

The contributions of Steve Jobs in the field of design are phenomenal. Minimalist design has had successive definitions through his products, each topping the other. His products have always been objects of art, merging seamlessly with the varied human forms and blending harmoniously with myriad environmental ambiences even while retaining an outstanding differentiation. Steve's designs have no vintage related obsolescence. Apple products, especially the “i” Series, demonstrate that a well designed and elegantly crafted form factor can be as durable and as compelling as a corporate logo. Here again, his design philosophy defines the term ‘trade mark’ in terms of emotional ownership by his users, which no amount of legal ownership that trade mark rights can fetch to a company. Apple's fight with Samsung on iPad has to be seen more in terms of the threat, the first time ever, to Apple's emotional connectivity with its users.

The other aspects of Apple's design philosophy are equally compelling. His product technology has been intuitive, universal and user-friendly. His products align perfectly with natural human behavior of ‘explore and experience’. From the ‘scroll and click’ mouse he pioneered for his personal computers initially to the ‘touch and feel’ he developed for his iDevices more recently, Jobs has transformed computers into a great sensory and audio-visual experience. One does not need to read complex manuals or go through multi-step tutorials to start using Apple products. Highly intuitive, feelingly natural and helpfully self-corrective features distinguish the user experience provided by Apple products. Steve Jobs has done what was for long impossible; he has infused life into technology, rendered its functioning soulful, and made technology intelligible to even the uninitiated. Various product innovations from Mac graphics and computer mouse to touch, slide, pinch and move sensory technologies, and the most recent iPhone4S voice technologies, are lively examples of Steve's humanized technologies.

Steve Jobs' design philosophy has been commercially as successful as aesthetically it has been elegant. This is very much evident from the fact that not even several hundreds of diverse smart phone models or portable music players from leading technology companies, in the aggregate, could make any dent on the leadership position of Apple products in terms of either design strengths or market allure. If more scientific and technology leaders pursue simplicity and focus for optimal performance the ’design to delivery’, value chain would be that much more impactful for the corporations as well as all of their stakeholders.

Digital ecosystem

There was a time when “make or buy” was a procurement decision. The concept of integration came up later to define the strategic choice of a corporation to have the full value chain within itself or focus only on a few core competencies internally. More recently, the wave of outsourcing has overwhelmed the world as a powerful instrument of cost competitiveness and time effectiveness. No leader, however, has encompassed all of these concepts under one umbrella of creating a virtual ecosystem by which all the current stakeholders and future value drivers would be sufficiently independent to be specialized, and yet strongly connected to an Apple ecosystem. Sony may have realized the importance of media and entertainment to development of electronics much earlier than Apple but it was Steve Jobs who pioneered the integration of music and movies into the Apple ecosystem through his iPod (2001) and iTunes(2003), providing a seamless media connectivity to the user. While some viewed this as an attempt to regulate consumer freedom through proprietary digital platform, eventually his contribution to making unlimited choice available to the consumer and curbing media piracy to support the media corporations is well acknowledged.

Equally impactful has been his unprecedented contribution to application development for his devices. In fact, the true era of application development has arrived with only the iDevices, more particularly iPhone and iPad. Application development is the model of virtual integration at its best, providing unlimited computing, connecting, reading, gaming, and entertainment capability to the Apple devices through third party applications. The fact that Apple has several thousand applications for its devices, for example over 500,000 applications for its iPhone, speaks off the success of the Apple digital ecosystem wherein any creative and capable software developer could come up with front ranking applications. Some of these application developers could themselves evolve into medium and mega enterprises in due course (Angry Birds, for example). Also, at a time when manufacturers consider retailing to be a different expertise, Steve Jobs propounded the concept of Apple Stores to enable and enhance integrated user experience. Today, with 320 retail stores, 237 of which are in USA, Apple retail network has extended the integration of the ecosystem further. Moving from the ground to the cloud decisively, Steve Jobs took one more giant leap when he announced in 2011, Apple iCloud service which seamlessly stores all of the music, photos, movies, documents, applications, mails, calendars and many others, and wirelessly pushes them to all of the Apple device users.

The strategies of integration, outsourcing and collaboration have thus become one under a vision of digital ecosystem for Apple products, services and consumers. For all the participants, it was as if it is one’s own world to live in as a home. From a corporate leadership point of view, creation of an expansive umbrella ecosystem which supports the core organization and all of the stakeholders is the way to grow a sustainable business.

Global value chain

Until Jobs came on the scene, the automobile industry and consumer electronics industries were two industries that seemingly had a global value chain. Yet, each of the industries was characterized by generational, performance and styling differentials in the models offered for different countries, constraining the operation of a true global value chain. More surprisingly, the industries exerted to retain critical components within the developed country supply chains and within collaborating groups, tied together by ownership or loyal supply history. Steve Jobs had a different concept of a unified product design for the globe from America, sourcing components from even potential competitors (for example, Samsung), basing the final assembly in China and generating huge value for Apple and USA through global sales.

Job's contributions in bringing Asia on its own as the global production hub of smart phones and tablets is acknowledged by not only the leaders of the component firms but also the leaders of the governments. Taiwan, China, Korea, Singapore and Japan drive the availability of critical components for Apple devices. Despite huge scale of procurement and critical scope, Apple has followed single vendor, and concentrated country, supply chain policy to great success. Part of the answer could lie in Apple’s penchant for integration under one ecosystem and the consequent assurance stakeholders perceive in terms of sustainable co-existence and growth. That said, Apple’s supply chain strategy is perhaps one of the more guarded aspects of the even otherwise secretive company. Flawless launch of products in millions of units the world over is possible only through a finely coordinated supply chain system as Apple’s.

The lesson for leaders is that global value chain can only be optimal on the basis of two primary factors; design superiority that provides the strength to source even from competitors as much as from dependent vendors, and an overall ecosystem that provides assurance to all stakeholders through collaborative forecasting and planning.

Simplicity as strategy

The achievements of Steve Jobs are built on just two core foundations of simplicity and elegance. These have supported a superstructure of seven principles that drove every aspect of his technology and management.

Style is Substance

From the very initial days Jobs and Apple believed in style: in neat, clean and clear fonts, in attractive, explanatory and friendly graphics, in elegant form factor with pleasant touch and feel experience, and in marketing in style and in dramatic detail. Jobs merged the left brain which is logical and linear and the right brain which is creative and emotional in his design philosophy, operational strategy and customer connectivity. Jobs’ knowledge and appreciation of calligraphy (which he learnt as a dropout at Reed College) came back to him years later to add detail, distinction and differentiation to his products.

Time is of essence

The concept of time as he executed was not one of go-to-market with the least time lapse from the first ideation. Rather, it was one of providing speed and efficiency in the hands of the users. From the response time to the navigation speeds, his devices deliver the time advantage to the users. At the same time, Steve Jobs was also willing to wait for the appropriate time to unleash some of his brightest ideas (for example, he was willing to wait to launch the devices, ready in the late 1990s, only after the broadband revolution in 2000s). At the same time, whether at Apple or the intervening Next Computer Services or Pixar Studios, he utilized every moment to develop or ideate on novel products.

Thrill Enthralls

As he devised his devices and as he launched them, Steve Jobs created a rare thrill which transported his entire ecosystem of the Apple organization, component suppliers and vendors, application developers and more importantly the users into a world of future possibilities. By eschewing market research and instead relying on his own perception of futuristic consumer needs, Jobs converted launch events into much anticipated dramatic rides into future. All Apple semi-annual launch events were inevitably thrilling and enthralling, representing an epitome of masterly showmanship and universal marketing.

Errors lead to Successes

It is not that either Steve Jobs or Apple was always successful. Apple struggled initially with Mac computers while Steve erred to antagonize his Board and lost the job despite several innovations between 1976 and 1985. Losing control of Apple in May 1985 was, of course, his greatest mistake. He lost much money in his subsequent entrepreneurial attempt, Next Computers. To add to that he had his own share of personal tribulations and unsatisfying spiritual quests. One may even doubt his wisdom in having the chief executive of Google, who would turn out to be a major competitor in smart phones and mobile operating systems, on the Board of Apple. All of these, however, did not deter Steve Jobs from discovering his spark of creativity to shape technology into breakthrough products and services (from digitally animated movies through Pixar to iDevice ideations through Next and Apple) . Neither did he slur over the failings; he moved to improve processes (for example, supplier scrutiny) and products (for example, antenna grip).

Technology is for all

In the fast changing technology world, established companies are often overtaken by younger startups with more creative and disruptive technologies. Steve Jobs demonstrated that Apple, even at 25, and he himself at 56, could be more creative than anyone else. Apple products were cool not merely to the adolescents and young professionals but equally appealing to the elderly and home making wives. That Jobs continued to brim with creativity in his 50s as he had been in his 20s, and despite undergoing a decade long traumatic fight with cancer, is something which most corporations and leaderships would need to take note of.

Team delivered perfection

While there is no denying Steve Jobs’ singular leadership, he has also built an outstanding team of ten outstanding leaders who delivered perfection in their domains. To quote a few, Jonathan Ive who heads design is credited with Apple’s minimalist snow white design while Scott Forstall drove successive IOS developments. Tim Cook’s exemplary supply chain prowess and Ron Johnson’s retail strategy provided end-to-end competencies. In addition, Steve Jobs’s relentless focus on getting the best of each employee has led to a uniformly high performing organization. The smooth succession of Tim Cook to the CEO role also signifies the development of internal leadership talent at Apple.

Wealth is Business Health

Steve Jobs is not known to have contributed or part-transited to charity as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have done. However, the national wealth he has generated through Apple’s revenues, profits and market capitalization, and the sheer scale of his product development and manufacturing and the global marketing of his products have possibly created more jobs and career opportunities than any industrial or charitable activity could hope to achieve. Apple’s success, under Jobs, demonstrates that wealth earned innovatively though humanization of technology is the best way to ensure sustainable health of businesses.

Model for America, and the World

Apple has seen dramatic growth in revenues, profits and market capitalization with the reentry of Steve Jobs as Apple’s CEO from 1997 onwards. Looking forward into the immediate term, Apple could claim an estimated annualized revenue level of approximately USD 110 billion, net profit of USD 25 billion and a market capitalization of USD 350 billion. It has created new historic highs in estimated annualized sales if iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs of 80, 40, 30 and 16 million units respectively. Apple employs nearly 50,000, over 12,000 of them in the US. The stock price touched a high of USD 413.45 in September 2011.

In an America which seems to have lost the confidence in its creative and innovative capabilities over the recent decades, Steve Jobs has demonstrated in the very same period an amazing model of aggressive and accelerating business growth based on products which touched and shaped human life and social connectivity as never before. By focusing on simplicity, elegance, perfection and friendliness he created an ecosystem of products and services that had sustainability and economic development. Hopefully, Steve’s life which provided the much needed life and soul to technology would inspire corporate leaders as well as bright men and women to focus on the hard but highly rewarding aspect of driving sustainability through simplicity.

The magic and the message

Unlike Jack Welsh and other leaders, Steve Jobs never made an attempt to discuss or describe his managerial or leadership thoughts. His commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, however, went on to become one of the most quoted speeches. It has been described as ‘life-changing’ and ‘career -transforming’. The three personal stories he narrated in the speech would inspire generations for the power of their simplicity just as his Apple products would continue to thrill generations with the elegance of technology. The legend that Steve Jobs has been would live on through generations of human enterprise and endeavor.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on October 9, 2011

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