The 'i'dea man



Too soon man! Too soon!

Some lives are counted in years and some, in contributions. Steve Jobs belonged to the latter.

Did he cure cancer, invent a longer lasting light bulb, end world strife or hunger, or bring about world peace? May be not, but he certainly did change the mindset of an entire industry, in terms of what it thought devices should be and do. Big deal! how does that cure cancer? Charles Babbage, the inventor of the (concept of) computer, might not have directly worked on the NASA's missions to land man on the moon. But much later after his lifetime, did someone make use of the concepts he founded and made the impossible possible. The contributions of visionaries do not suffer from half-life decay; if not in material, their ideas enjoy exponential growth over the generations being put to use sometimes in letter and sometimes in spirit. As Newton once humbly submitted that he was but a small man standing on the tall shoulders of his predecessors, Jobs' efforts didn't rid the world of its maladies but they definitely made the world a much interesting space to operate in by changing the way modern technology related to everyday life. Jobs is no Edison, he didn't actually sit down and invent the digital music players or the tablet PCs. He just made them better, a whole lot better, in ways never thought before, both in applicability and in aesthetics. And that probably defines the life of the man, his single minded devotion to perfection, refusing to settle for nothing but the best. He made ordinary people, who till then were apprehensive to approach technology and so brushed it away as just a mindless indulgence for ones who had the luxury of time and obsession, actually care for it. He did turn around an industry, which till then perched itself on a condescending high ground and expected its consumers to approach it with reverence, to shed its 'complicated' garb and take on a more simplified stance, all without compromising on the quality. That is the 'what' of Jobs' life and legacy.

And now the 'how'. Truth be told, Jobs failed more times and at more things than he succeeded and was greatly rewarded for. In fact, in his short 56 years of lifespan, it was only during his last decade that his fame reached dizzying heights as he developed a Midas touch for end user products. During the rest of his career, all his victories were purely Pyrrhic, praised more for the effort than for the effect. Until his company, Apple, became the most valued and richest in the world, besting even the old oil boys in the process, Jobs reveled in his role as a rebel, an outsider, an outlaw, who never cared for the riches who had his own band of merry men, to constantly challenge, harass and mock the mainstream for its lack of imagination and inventiveness. That was the time when the world wasn't ready for him yet, when technology was still dictating terms to the needs and the requirements of the users, instead of other way around. The watershed moment in Jobs' resurrection as the second coming of Christ was in 1997, when, in some staunch loyalists' opinion, he made a Faustian deal with Microsoft to purchase some financial succor to his then ailing and failing company, on the verge of collapse, lacking both the direction and that drive that it was once famous for. The turnaround started with iMac, a brilliant and a gorgeous spin on the traditional desktop design. The usage of the prefix "i" for all its products post the revival, whether accidental or intentional, indicated the direction Apple, under Jobs, took, making the user the center of the technology universe, as against the prevalent configuration of having him somewhere on the periphery of the product experience. The shift was as revolutionary in the industry, as the geocentric to heliocentric shift once was in astronomy. That the change came to be known in the internet circles as 'Web 2.0', where user is the king and the content merely serves him, is an ample demonstration of how far ahead Jobs pulled away from the resident traditional thinking. That, in short, was the 'how', turning technology as the humble servant to the user.

There is a long standing 'chicken and egg' question in the business circles as to which comes first, the need or the deed. Conventional wisdom states that the need be placed in the front, with the deed following it, to fulfill it. Now, looking back at Apple's flagship products - iPod, iPhone and iPad, it is fairly obvious that Jobs turned that 'deed servicing the need' paradigm on its head and went ahead and sided with the action, and let the demand catch up with it. Before the arrival of the "i-" lineup, the world was just fine with the inferior alternatives, or in some cases, even the lack of them. But post the releases of each of those products, the world just couldn't live without them. That might his message to the business world - show the need and the world pays heed. They say, a man is known by his friends, which in business speak translates to, a man is known by his foes (competitors). Jobs' profile isn't complete without his bete noire - Bill Gates. Edison had Tesla to contend with, McEnroe had Borg, and Jobs had Gates. Similar backgrounds, similar drives, same age group, and almost similar rise to stardom, both of them relied on their marketing savvy and strong work ethic to reach where they did, but the roads they traveled couldn't be more divergent. Gates traded his wares on the functionality side and Jobs, on the possibilities. And the more Microsoft succeeded in the 90s, in great parts due to large captive market share, the stronger became Jobs' resolve in showing what the user community truly missed in design and innovation. Though the success that had been eluding him for better part of his life finally gave in to his charms only during his final laps, one look at his oeuvre, and it is clear as a day that the drive to be different had always been there, it is only now that it is being rewarded with general acceptance.

The mark of an innovator lies not in the end product, but in the initial idea that compelled him to chart a course of creation. What does an end user care about a bulky CPU in his PC, and the iMac was born with both the monitor and the CPU integrated within the same box; music is only data and therefore the question is one of designing a small enough portable hard drive, and thus ended the reign of CDs; why pay an entire music album for just one good song, and the idea of iTunes, a simple and an elegant distribution medium for music, saved the music industry at the time it was just about to close shop because of rampant piracy; and finally the iPad, the optimal PC for a casual end-user - why a bulky machine, if a majority of functions involved the internet. As seen, each idea challenged and changed the status quo. It is not about the need, it is about the drive of reducing a complex issue to its simplest size and providing a solution to it. Simplicity, as history shows, lies at the root of greatness - be it in men or material. One follows the other, as the life of Jobs has shown, who is reported to have left behind, besides his wife and children, a simple home with a cot, table and chair to his name.

Inventors have products, visionaries have ideas.

2 comments:

vasishta bommakanti said...

brilliant article!!

Anonymous said...

Nice. But content-wise it's so similar to 'n' no of sites. Why don't you try the same in Telugu for wider reachability? Of course, it's my personal opinion. Your wish.

Ratnakar