Steve Jobs Did Not Change the World
A contrarian view on how Steve Jobs’ contributions to society should be measured
Published: Monday, November 7, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 12:11
Steve Jobs was a visionary corporate executive and cultural icon whose name and company became synonymous with innovation. He had a greater impact than most CEOs – indeed, as The Economist noted in a cover story, Jobs made "people love what had previously been impersonal, functional gadgets."
Many have highlighted the fanatic Apple community that Jobs created, and the enthusiasm its members had for elegant, easy-to-use, high-end Apple products. Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 remains required viewing for anyone setting out on a new path and seeking inspiration. His death inspired glowing tributes from leaders in business and government and millions of technology users across the world.
When the story of his Oct. 5 death broke, Apple's website simply displayed the iconic picture of Jobs resting his chin on his thumb with the text "Steve Jobs 1955-2011." Since then, millions have shared their thoughts on Jobs through a "Remembering Steve" section of Apple's site. This Sunday on the venerable Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked, "Why can't we find leaders like Steve Jobs here in Washington?" And last week, advertisements on taxi cabs in New York displayed that same photo of Jobs and said "You Changed The World."
Let's pump the brakes, folks. Steve Jobs changed the world if the world only consists of people who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on digital music players and tablet computers or thousands on high-end personal computers. Surely we can define our world in broader terms, and raise our requirements for changing it. The World Bank estimates that as of 2008, over 2.6 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day. Perhaps Job's innovations will touch these people in time, perhaps not.
It is worth mentioning that if they do, we can probably thank Bill Gates. Like many rivalries in history, it is difficult to discuss one without the other. Gates will never engender the same kind of cult-like following as did Jobs, who had an uncanny ability to seem like an underdog even when Apple surpassed Microsoft in terms of market capitalization this year. Yet it was Gates, not Jobs, who made the personal computer cheaper and increased accessibility through Microsoft and the horizontal integration of the PC industry in the 1980s and 90s. Gates will arguably be most remembered for setting the standard for 21st century philanthropy and convincing other members of the 1 percent to use their wealth to improve the world. And although Apple has been a significant contributor to Bono's Project Red initiative, Jobs was never known for his philanthropic efforts.
Let's get another thing straight, too. Jobs' authoritarian, uncompromising style worked at Apple but it would not translate to government. The pundits on Meet the Press yearn for Apple-like efficiency in the public sector when Washington was not created to foster it.
Washington works well when its leaders understand the wisdom of compromise. Jobs was not suited for this kind of governance structure and to suggest otherwise misunderstands his greatness. Without him, the world would still have digital music players, tablets, and personal computers. Steve Jobs made them prettier and breathtakingly simple to use by focusing on the minute details. Jobs was perfectly suited for his time and position. He was a creator, innovator, and remarkable business leader but this kind of hero-worship is not helpful and we should acknowledge his contributions appropriately.