The Blog

  • November 21, 2011
  • Gates, Jobs and Tinkering

    Malcolm Gladwell published an illuminating article on the late Steve Jobs in this week’s New Yorker and I recommend it highly.  If you are looking for something that delves into the dirty laundry of Job’s tempestuous personality there’s some of that but it’s hardly the focus of the piece.  Nevertheless, Gladwell, with a knack for drilling into a subject and finding something other than the usual stuff, comes out with observations that explain Jobs and help to position him in the pantheon of technology giants.

    Much has been made of Job’s second act and of how he seemingly rose from defeat after being booted out of Apple—his triumphant return and the string of “i” devices that turned Apple into a consumer electronics giant and the second most valuable company on the stock ticker (after Exxon).  But what’s behind this is, you could say, regular market dynamics.  The same dynamics that elevated Jobs in the new century were the ones that contributed to his undoing earlier.

    We’ve all been exposed to ideas about market dynamics by Geoffrey Moore, Clay Christensen and others.  Early markets are bare bones affairs and capturing market share is paramount for young companies making the market.  Later the survivors can go back to flesh out their creations with subsequent versions and vendors who think they can do the fleshing out early rarely survive to do so.

    In the computer industry the flesh came in the form of the GUI, networking, databases and such things that added value to the basic invention.  The analogy might be summarized as first we feed everyone then we can invent cuisine.  Gladwell asserts that Jobs’ genius was in tinkering with original inventions and making them better and he gives many examples.  But he does not stop there; Gladwell compares Jobs to other tinkerers from other ages, notably the people who perfected the steam engine making it a useful tool for the industrial age.

    In that comparison, Gladwell effectively makes the point that Steve Jobs was simply too early to the cuisine aspect of the high-tech revolution.  He sought to make stylish boots when too many were still shoeless.  If true, and this explanation feels right to me at least, it explains much of Jobs’ success in his second coming to Apple.  By the very late 1990s the industry had filled out and customers were in need of the finer points of technology that would do more than the mundane record keeping and making the devices actually fun to use was finally the order of the day.

    Ironically, Apple had spent much of the prior decade trying to make itself relevant to masses that only wanted utility and through a series of bad business moves had brought itself to the brink of extinction.  It was a turning point for the industry and perhaps by pure luck, or the luck of Steve Jobs, it maneuvered itself through a keyhole coming out the other side as the industry icon.

    This analysis takes nothing away from Jobs, the guy in the hot seat and the one who needed to make hundreds of right calls to ensure that today we have stylish, elegant and highly functional tablets, phones, personal music players and more.

    Jobs has often been compared to Bill Gates and Walter Isaacson chronicles the long relationship between the two men in his biography of Jobs.  But they are not exactly opposites.  Not even Gates can be seen as an original inventor of technology and sometimes both men can be seen tinkering with and improving someone else’s ideas.  For example, Gates actually bought the DOS operating system from someone else and Windows was the stepchild of the Macintosh operating system which we all know was inspired by Xerox’s GUI.  Office is the amalgamation through tinkering of applications from Lotus, Word Perfect (and before that Wang) and Harvard Graphics.

    But of the two men, Gates and the company he started are creatures of the last century while Jobs is really of this one.  I recently watched Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford from 2005 on YouTube in which he quipped that Windows stole everything from the Macintosh.  But the difference between Microsoft emulating and tinkering with an idea and Apple doing the same is that the Apple version improves while the Microsoft version is more of a copy.

    Last week I was in Microsoft’s flagship store in Belleview, Washington.  It was not hard to see the Apple inspirations in every element of the store from the layout to the products and services offered though the Microsoft employees I met all seemed to believe that their company had practically invented the store concept, no matter I guess.  The store is a good idea as were Windows, music players, application ecosystems, marketplaces, handheld devices with big screens and tablets and much more.  Knowing something of the relationship between Gates and Jobs and thinking of Job’s place in history as a tinkerer, perhaps it is fitting to recall that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Published: 12 years ago


    • November 21st, 2011 at 5:14 pm    


      Thanks for mentioning Harvard Graphics. Hardly anyone remembers it anymore, but it had a 70% market share in its day before Windows and MS Office destroyed the desktop application software category.


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