Jobs and the Pantheon

Where does he belong?

America still has rock star CEOs: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Michael Eisner, and the subject of today’s discussion, Steve Jobs.  Only Gates and Jobs were personally innovative, though, and between the two, only Jobs created products that people want to need, as opposed to ones they feel they’re stuck needing.

Although many articles have already recited the litany of life-changing inventions Jobs was responsible for, it’s worth running through them again, if only to have as a handy reference. The was: the Apple II (we had the II+, and Dad splurged for 48K of memory), the Mac, Pixar, the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad.

But just as sex didn’t start in the 1960s, great companies didn’t start in the 80s.  Before Jobs, in some sense, at the beginning, there was Edison and Ford.  If you’re looking for comparable versatility and influence on the consumer market, directly on the lives of millions, or billions of people, those two are the gold standard.

With the distance of time, and the ravages of curricular political correctness, we forget exactly how revolutionary Edison was.  The soon-to-be-contraband light bulb, of course.  But also the electrical distribution system to run it (and the dynamo, conductive system, and on-off outlets that were required to run it).  The phonograph.  Movies.  There were about 1100 others, but those are the biggies.  And of course, Edison had to create and run the company that wired New York.

Ford, of course, developed the assembly line for automobiles.  But his genius was his insistence on creating an affordable car for the up-and-coming middle class.  Without that, the car remains a toy for the rich, and eventually industrial uses.  It was a conscious decision by Ford to make a car that the average employee could afford.  That it would be 10 years before inter-city auto travel became the norm, and 30 years before the thing would start reliably, is beside the point.  The car, as Wendell Cox has pointed out, meant that for the first time in history, the mass of people could travel distant from where they were born, and come back.

So where does Jobs stack up against these two?  I think he combines elements of both, and just as we have to adjust for the era in which baseball players played, we also have to adjust for the era in which Jobs CEOed.

The Apple II and the Mac, I think, are most like Ford’s Models A and T.  It was Jobs’s insight that the average guy not only could have a computer, but that he’d figure out what to do with it.  He and the other Steve, Wozniak, worked to make their computer affordable.  And later, Jobs insisted that the Mac be small enough to be  accessible.  (Also like Ford, he left his company, saw it passed by its main competitor, and returned to revive it, but that’s really taking the analogy too far.)

But if Jobs was more than Ford, he was, perhaps more like Edison.  The iPod is our phonograph.  Edison didn’t invent music, he just made it more available.  Jobs didn’t invent portable music, he just made it more available, in spectacular fashion.  The iPhone and the Mac perhaps add up to the light bulb.   If Edison could – in the hands of Hollywood – give an impassioned speech about people ruining their eyes trying to read by expensive candles, Jobs could made similar claims about computerizing our small-to-mid-size company finances, and putting the Internet in the palm of our hands, with similar productivity gains.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve been saved by having Google Maps in the car, or being able to call ahead to say I’ll be late, without having to pull off the highway, find a – working – pay phone, and a phone book, and then find my way back to the highway.  And that’s, like, 1% of what the smartphone does.

Of course, Pixar was a marriage of computing technology and the movies that Edison made.  There, perhaps, Jobs is Walt Disney, even as Pixar made him Disney’s biggest shareholder.

Like Edison, Jobs has a huge back catalog of patents that either haven’t made it to market, or won’t.  Unlike Edison, Jobs appears to have left behind an culture of innovation that, properly husbanded, can continue to churn out marvelous toys for at least another decade.

But what sets Edison apart is the electrical distribution system, which made all that followed possible.  Jobs really has nothing like it to his credit.  But then, nobody does.  The closest analogy in our day would be, I think the Internet, in all its incarnations, and both the landline and wifi internets have been the result of corporate, rather than individual effort, although there have been some brilliant individual innovators along the way (Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen, call your offices.)

So Jobs isn’t Edison, or Ford, or Disney.  He’s Steve Jobs.  And that’s plenty enough to put him in the first rank of American inventor-innovator-businessmen.

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