2010 Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP
Earlier this week I was asked to appear on Bloomberg Rewind, the daily TV recap hosted by Matt Miller, to talk about the legacy of Steve Jobs. Having recently finished the Walter Isaacson biography, and having a few thoughts of my own on the subject, I took it as an opportunity to grapple with a question that's bothered me for some time: Not just what Jobs left behind, but what made him great—and why that was so hard for most people to see until his business success made it so blindingly obvious.
Jobs's accomplishments are fairly easy to summarize. Let's see: he reinvented what a personal computer could be, what an animated movie could be, what a music player could be, what an online music store could be, what a real-world tech store could be, what a mobile phone could be, what a digital tablet could be—and by many accounts he was well on his way to reinventing what television could be when he died. In the process he not only reshaped the computer business, the music business, the mobile phone business, and the retail business; he also helped lay the groundwork for the kind of deep media experiences that are transforming the way we tell stories. Along the way he engineered a reverse takeover of not one enterprise but two—Apple, when it bought NeXT in 1997 and he ended up in control, and Disney Animation, when Disney bought Pixar in 2006 and the Pixar people took control. Not bad.
The key word here is "reinvent." Jobs didn't dream up any of the gadgets that made Apple so successful. He refined them. Time and again he took ideas that were in the air, or at least in the lab, and figured out what was missing from all previous iterations. Then he re-imagined and realized them as (to borrow a phrase from my colleague Steven Levy) the perfect thing. Or as close to perfect as he and his team could humanly get.
It's easy to look back now and say the man was a genius. It's much harder to embrace the qualities that made him that way. Having covered the 29-year-old Jobs's ouster from Apple in West of Eden, I can report that the hagiography that accompanied his death this fall had its flip side in the near-exultation that accompanied his forced exile in 1985. John Sculley, the CEO who kicked him out, was greeted at the time as Apple's savior—a bit prematurely, as it turned out. Jobs was the bratty entrepreneur who had to be sacrificed so Sculley could assume the mantle of visionary even as he churned out widgets.