Steve Jobs was probably among the top 5 most influential technological pioneers in the last 30 years or so. But was he the greatest among them all? How does he compare to inventors and visionaries of the past?
To answer question 1, he wasn’t. He doesn’t come close to Thomas Alva Edison, let alone Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. Heck, he doesn’t even come close to contemporaries such as Dennis Ritchie – the principal designer of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix operating system – who died last week.
But have you heard of Mr. Ritchie or even his death? Chances are, you haven’t. But Mr. Jobs – his aura seems to transcend the very world he used to live in! Why? Because Mr. Jobs made inventions sexy. That’s his sum total contribution to the technological development – make products sexy, so that owning one becomes THE in-thing.
Don’t get me wrong here. Steve Jobs was a great man. But a great inventor or profound visionary, he wasn’t. You can argue that he was a visionary in the sense that he could package products which were seemingly cool to a lot of people, but he did little to improve the lives of people or figuring out some profound truth of the universe. So to compare him to Da Vinci, as this article here has done, is as close it gets to blasphemy to an apatheist like me.
A man with acute business acumen, certainly. A visionary, to an extent. But a great inventor? A good one, but I have great reservations on the ‘great inventor’ moniker.
A great inventor possesses ideas and brings them to reality that are hard to conceive, emulate and which have long-lasting (if not ever-lasting) effects on the general populace. When compared to epoch changing inventions like the steam engine (James Watt), light bulb and a host of other inventions (Edison), flight (Wright brothers) even cars (Henry Ford), what Jobs churned out (from poorly maintained Chinese factories, which is another story) were merely toys for the rich, though granted Apple products have formed a cult following which now transcends the wealthy. $600 for a phone (without a contract that is) IS a very expensive piece of 4.35″ by 2.31″ metal/plastic.
Let’s take a look at the conceive part. Most Apple products are not the first ones of their type. The personal computer existed since at least 1968, and the first Apple computer, Apple I, came out in 1976. Neither the mp3 player nor the tablet (the concept, that is) were babies of Apple, though, again, they gained popularity when iPod and iPad were introduced in the market. The iPhone is probably the only path breaker.
Emulate – For any Apple products out in the market, there are 10 available alternative, and some with better specifications and usability.
Long lasting effect – The only thing that recent Apple products have done is to make technology incredibly available on the go, courtesy the iPhone and iPad. But how much has these devices increased actual productivity? Very little, in my opinion! In fact, I believe they have actually decreased productivity, for most users! Most people who I know, primarily use these devices for content consumption or leisure (e.g. games, music, video, social media interaction) and some good-to-have-but-nothing-lost-if-I-don’t-have-it information (e.g. weather, maps, stock market). Not a whole lot of content is created using these devices apart from taking photographs and videos.
And if the iPhone were truly such a game changing product why the necessity to have 4 or 5 version in the same number of years?
General population – How many people outside the first world countries can afford any Apple products? Even in the rich countries, an Apple product cost almost twice as much as the nearest competitor, with comparable specs, thereby limiting the potential consumers. To say nothing about the fact that the Mac still does not run certain very common softwares.
This article gives the (over the top) obituaries and remembrance some perspective.
First among equals? Not quite so.
Clarifying point, if it is not already clear: In this post I’m just talking about Steve Jobs as the founder/leader of Apple and NOT about (or comparing) how he was as a person, how he treated his co-workers, how much he gave to charity or any of his personal life.
[This post was developed from the comment I left on this article]