Steve Jobs the Patron Saint of Perfectionists

The most amazing thing about Steve Jobs and the revival of Apple he engineered over the last 15 years is so improbable it is. Most of the digital innovations that have transformed our lives have been logical outgrowth of increasing power and decreasing cost of semiconductors. Someone was going to invent personal computers, cell phones, the Internet, even search engines.

But there was nothing the slightest bit inevitable about a company whose digital products are perceived as so distinctive they attract dominant market shares despite premium prices. As recently as 2002, personal computers were seen as such a commodity business—dominated by high volume and low costs—that Hewlett Packard paid $25 billion to buy Compaq and vault past Dell to be the No. 1 in the market. Last week, HP, still the leader, said it is considering abandoning PCs altogether, at least partially a concession that Apple was taking an increasing share of the market and most of the profits.

I haven’t been a Mac user since I sold my first generation model—with 128K of memory and one floppy drive. But I recently walked into an Apple store and fondled the latest MacBook Air. I was blown away by how the use of multi-touch gestures and a few other innovations transformed the experience of this very mature category of products. Again.

The succession of new products from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad has become the business lore of our age. A keynote by Steve Jobs is anticipated, at least by many, more eagerly than the State of the Union address. Even aspects of the computer business that most rivals see as—product sourcing, manufacturing process, and even retail store operations—have become areas of disruptive innovation at Apple.

Jobs created a growing snowball of innovation, hype, customer loyalty, and scale that could be seen with astounding force in the iPad. Here was a product category that was entirely new (except for some regrettable Microsoft missteps). But instantly it was a hit—not just among gadget geeks—but with tens of millions of people who saw something that immediately appeared useful and alluring. They trusted that Apple could deliver something that would just work without the glitches and disappointments that dependably accompany the first generation of products from lesser companies.

Behind this success was not an engineer, like the troika that until recently led Google, nor a professional manager, like the succession of leaders at HP, nor even an entrepreneur like Michael Dell.  Steve Jobs was an impresario, in the tradition, more than anything, of a classic Hollywood studio boss (which he also was in his spare time). It’s fitting that Jobs is now the largest individual shareholder of the company founded by one of the 20th Century’s all time great perfectionists: Walt Disney.

This approach didn’t make apple a pleasant company to deal with or to work at. Everyone at Apple worked with the anxiety that they must meet the impossible demands of Jobs or endure his anger. To the public and even to Apple’s biggest partners the company was about as responsive as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; no one ever went in and no one ever came out. And yes to work at Apple was to accept the lot of an Oompa Loompa. The company took secrecy to such an extreme that employees were divided into small groups and ordered not to talk to each other, let alone anyone outside of the company.

My one encounter with Jobs was true to form. In 2004, I had just started covering consumer electronics, and I was writing about the battle between iTunes and Microsoft’s initiative at the time “Plays for Sure,” an effort to create an open standard for music formats. This was before Apple’s reputation—and the arrogance it enabled– blew past all previous records. Still, when I asked Jobs at the end of a press conference to discuss Apple’s strategy in the music market, he blew me off saying “We don’t like to talk about that.”

We all know lots of people who are nice. We know many people who are smart. We’ve seen a bunch of corporate leaders who have the rare combination of skills to surf the waves spawned by Moore’s Law. But it’s hard to think of anyone besides Steve Jobs who through the sheer force of will, self-confidence, vision and perfectionism could upend the powerful forces of technology to make so many products that delighted so many people precisely because they were improbable.