Contrary to popular belief, Steve Jobs was not a great inventor, but rather a great re-inventor, capable of transforming existing products like the mobile phone or MP3 to make life easier for the user.There are certain battles we human beings know we can’t win – at least for now. We all knew that Steve Jobs was going to die: first, because although he may have seemed to be immortal, he wasn’t. And second, because the gap between cancer and technology means that cancer is still cancer, and when it goes badly, you can’t beat it, even with all the means in the world at your disposal. It is very possible that many of the obituaries we have read recently in the press were actually written months ago. When a person with a reputation for being a born worker with a vocation stays at the helm of Apple until so recently, despite such obvious physical decline, you tend to think the worst when he finally takes the decision to stop working, namely that he must be in a very bad way.
It is difficult to write about Steve Jobs without further talking up the things we have seen in all the obituaries. Superlatives abound: genius, visionary, inspirational leader, guru… many have used those words to write pieces that range from epic to poetic, a chorus of eulogies, which, although fairly typical when talking of someone who has just died and we accept that it is not a time for criticism, have been taken much further in this particular case.
What did Jobs have that made him give off such an incredibly positive vibe, and the feeling that he was almost superhuman? Firstly, his story made for good reading: a successful entrepreneur, who was pushed out of his own company, saw it practically collapse, only to be brought back to triumphantly turn it into the most valuable firm in its field. But there is more to the “magic” than that. The praise heaped on Jobs is really the result of projecting what we make of his personality and creations onto ourselves.
Steve Jobs was, in actual fact, the great reinventor. His creations were not inventions in themselves, but rather reinventions of existing products. The common denominator was that they were reinterpretations of ideas focused on one key aspect, namely the user. That’s you and me. Everyone. When Jobs launched his computer onto the market, he did it with the idea of reinventing a complex device that was not user friendly in the slightest. The idea was that any user should be able to use it without problems, or even enjoy using it, feeling personally empowered by a tool which, like the advertisement says, just works.
The user experience was, without doubt, the core value of his creations. It was an obsession, which translated into a relentless pursuit of perfection bordering on hysteria. Control over each and every aspect of the process, from hardware and software to the packaging, and an obsession for the interface, the point of contact with the user.
His idea worked. And he repeated it several times with tremendous success. The iPod is an MP3 player which was launched when there were already thousands on the market, but the moment it came out it redefined the whole concept and immediately rendered all other MP3 players obsolete, because they were just more difficult to use and smacked of previous generation, and when they tried to catch up they just became clumsy imitations. The iPhone? In a market flooded with mobile phones, it was what every other phone wanted to be when it grew up. It forced all other companies to work on the “iPhone killer” product that never came, and despite being practically the last to arrive in the segment it defined evolutionary trends and the technology agenda. Clean, simple, powerful… and no need for instructions. The iPad, same philosophy: reinvention of an old concept, the tablet, turning it into the sexiest and most desirable gadget on the technology scene. Again, no instruction manual necessary.
Launching a sophisticated device, and doing it in such a way that it is a joy to use, as well as having barriers to entry that are so low that you don’t even need paltry instruction manual, is beyond the capacities of the vast majority of mortals. Jobs, definitely managed to achieve just that. We adore Jobs because he dedicated his life to reinventing concepts and bringing them within reach of our capacities, and this brought him a user base who were faithful, loyal Apple fanboys (and girls). People who have used an Apple device find it impossible to resist using other apple products to see if the experience is the same or better. Once you have tasted the apple, there is no going back.
He employed the same approach to customer service. If something broke, you don’t just get it repaired. You take it to a kind of bar were these “geniuses” treat you like a king and solve anything it is possible to solve. All that is missing is a gin and tonic (with apple, of course). So where did this idea come from? From Steve’s penchant for putting himself in the users’ place and trying to give us the same experience that he himself would like to have. That’s what he wanted for all his products.
When all is said and done, we adore Jobs because in addition to being brilliant, he knew how to channel his brilliance toward others. Toward his customers. He enlightened us. He was a compulsive user of his own products to see how others felt when they used them. He invented practically nothing, but he reinvented better than anyone else. And he never stopped being obsessed with the user experience. He always had his customer in mind. Perhaps, as I read on Twitter yesterday, Steve Jobs is not dead – he just went to see his iCloud from close up.