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When Steve Jobs died in October 2011, not only the international business community lost one of its last icons. Steve Jobs was revered by many as a role model. He was not only a pioneer and entrepreneur but demonstrated the ability to “come back” and sustain hardship in his last years. Icons have become a rare breed in the times of anonymous corporations. The entrepreneur becoming an icon of his industry embodies the dreams of many demonstrating that even nowadays a dishwasher can become a millionaire, good ideas can beat hard work, and, especially in Steve Jobs’ case, technology can express the philosophy of a human-centered world.
In contrast to Graham Bell or Thomas Edison in the early days of communication technology, Steve Jobs never invented anything really new. With the notable exception of the iPad he did not create any genuinely new products. The iPod was essentially a Walkman MP3-Player without a tape, the first iPhone combined usual functions just in a new way, and the graphical surface of the Mac OS heavily drew on a research demonstration by Xerox.
However, Steve Jobs was a genius in bringing the abstract concept of usability into products and life. From its MacOS to the iPad, the products of Apple expressed concern for the human being using it. They fulfilled the criteria of ease of use, elegance and multimodality. They demonstrate that for human beings “form follows function” is just a baseline. In his way of combining the senses, touching the world, and manipulating its objects, everybody can become an individual artist. Consequently, good functions should find a beautiful form – and many products of Apple qualify as artful in their elegant external and internal simplification of their functions.
Furthermore, Steve Jobs viewed human beings and their world as interacting organic systems. He designed his products as tools for this interaction. The “i” preceding many product names may be written modestly as a small letter, but for the users it is a big one. The “i” reflects their individuality and links the tool directly to their extended self, makes it their tool. Steve Jobs never forgot that interactions strive for partial completeness. Many competitors produced music playing devices or computers needing backups regularly, neglected by its users, but it was left to Steve Jobs and Apple to open the first accompanying music shop and add unobtrusive automatic backup devices. One may call it “business strategy” but certainly it is also organic complementary growth.
It was this background of an individuality centered company which allowed Apple to find an unexpected audience. Not only the more affluent and trendy buy Apple products. These products have also become status symbols of the anti capitalistic alternative scene. If you visit a conference of hackers or the progressive “pirate parties” in Europe you will not look at anonymous laptops with a free operating system like Linux on it, but at lines of Apple Logos both on the podium and in the audience. With this broad backing, at least for some time and for some products, Apple was able to leave its role as a trendy and pricy niche supplier to become a major player in the markets. In addition, Apple’s attempt to establish itself as a human centered brand met nearly naturally with human sympathy on the side of its customers. They are not only willing to pay a little more for this effort. They also forgive more easily when it comes to small technical problems and show tolerance with regard to the closed system approach and the secretiveness of the company.
There seemed to be, however, also a second miracle at Apple after the revitalization following Steve Jobs’ return. On first sight Apple and Steve Jobs seemed inseparable after their reunion. Like all icons he seemed to have imprinted the company in a way that made it hard to imagine how it could survive without him. Nevertheless, the share price of Apple did not drop significantly after his death. The problem of icons is often a self centeredness combined with an unwillingness to really delegate and trust in others. It is the big and successful “I” in the icon which lets us think that almost nothing runs really well without him or her. Louis XIV’s “the state is me” is transferred to the company and icons forget or just do not want to implement a structure for the future. Therefore, these companies can often disintegrate as fast as rapidly erected empires.
Historical experience advises caution and also the legal battle of Apple against Samsung with regard to the iPad shows that the company feels the heat. But the future of Apple may look better as sad as it is, because Steve Jobs, facing a long illness, had time to direct its course into the future. How can you prepare a consumer technology company for a future in which only the “known unknowns” seem certain? Existing products will change and integrate, new products will emerge, and product cycles will get even faster. New products will continue to influence individual and social behavior. Product homogeneity driven by cost considerations will be in conflict with a growing wish for individuality. If you cannot pass on patents and other fixtures you can only try to pass on the vision, perspective, and dedication which made you successful. These are “soft items” but whatever the future brings, there will always be a place for a company focusing on the “i” which is connected to a product.
A small detail indicates that Steve Jobs vision is shared by many in the company. Some weeks ago specialists from iSuppli disassembled an iPhone 4. The parts found were not very special, but the engineers were impressed by the interior design which they labeled as elegant in its details and architecture. Therefore, if the iPhone stands symbolically for Apple, Steve Jobs has created more than “clever marketing” and “usability” but a company which follows his principles into those aspects of the product not visible to the public eye. So it can be hoped that Apple will, like a good book, outlive its author for a long time.