In 1996, when Steve Jobs came back to Apple after a decade-long exile, the company’s products took a dramatic turn. The next 15 years would be a whirlwind of monstrous success after monstrous success–iMac, iPod, iTunes Music Store, Intel-based MacBook, iPhone, MacBook Air, iPad. Jobs’s resignation as CEO yesterday has led to some excessive hand-wringing about Apple’s future, near and far, but the Jobsian philosophy–in which the consumer is king, in which there is one right way to do things, in which it is always preferable to trim than to add–will hopefully have permeated Apple enough to weather his departure. It’s already had an effect on the world at large.
The Jobsian philosophy is so fundamentally different from the ethos of the other tech giants–Microsoft especially, but also Sony, Google, Facebook, and (until last week) HP–that it’s surprising that Jobs came from the same place and time. The core Silicon Valley companies all sprung from the tinkerers-in-garages set, a state of mind that’s remained essential to techies decades later. Jobs was a key member of that group, and his work with Apple in the company’s early years is not really so different from Microsoft’s early work, though Jobs was always less of a businessman and perhaps a bit more autocratic (especially as regards licensing).
After he was ousted by Apple’s board in 1985, he spent a decade creating another company, NeXT Computing, from scratch. It’s tempting to chalk up his later success to some of the life changes that happened during this time (which you can read more about in Gizmodo’s timeline)–meeting his biological family, getting married, having two children, beginning to identify as Buddhist–but the change in attitude and work habits that enabled his success might be more easily explained with simple math. The guy was barely 30 years old when he was forced out of Apple, and 40 when he came back. And it was when he came back that his vision coagulated into something tangible.
The Jobsian vision is a variation on minimalism, something completely unexpected when dealing with computers, inherently complex devices. To Jobs, computers are for real people. Not businessmen (ahem HP) or corporations (ahem Microsoft), but people. Computers should be beautiful objects. (Jobs at one point said, when resigning from Apple in 1985, “If Apple becomes a place where computers are a commodity item, where the romance is gone, and where people forget that computers are the most incredible invention that man has ever invented, I’ll feel I have lost Apple.”) Computers should be intuitive and simple, but never dull. It is the duty of the computer’s maker to discover the best way to do things, and to eliminate anything that makes that path difficult. And when you make something simple, the details become the most important thing.
The easiest comparison, to me, is to a chef. Take the best ingredients, assemble them simply but precisely, and present a finished dish the way it should be consumed. No extra garnishes, nothing superfluous. Too much is worse than too little. No optional sauces, no mix-and-match, no “add this if you want.” The chef is the expert here, not the patron.
That mentality has irked or infuriated the tinkerers, as well it should. There’s certainly a sense of smugness–the Jobsian philosophy says “I know the way this should be done.” And it has led Apple astray, sometimes. But Apple is also backed by undeniably brilliant engineers and designers (chief among them Jon Ives), which is why their products are successes more often than not. A composed dish can be amazing, or awful, but a buffet can only rise to a certain height. That’s the Jobsian philosophy, anyway.
That minimalism has had an effect just about everywhere. Apple isn’t just a gadget-maker; the products spearheaded under Jobs are in the Museum of Modern Art. They’ve inspired similar-minded folks in all kinds of disparate industries, consciously or not. Apple was one of the first to fiercely embrace the use of certain typographic ideas (especially the Helvetica font), which is now used in just about every location imaginable, especially all over the web. Every tech company at least tried the start their own content stores, from Microsoft’s Zune to Sony’s Connect (some were more successful than others). Companies like American Apparel copied Apple’s minimalism, while just about every ad strives to hit an “Apple-like” note of innovation and hipness. Apple’s success in the future won’t rely on whoever’s sitting in the boss’s seat–it’ll come from hiring brilliant folks and adhering to the model already in place.
Apple isn’t like Sony, which crumpled in ability and influence after the departure of its two founders. That’s because Sony’s founders were amazing engineers and designers–but that’s it. Without their two stars, Sony had trouble. But Apple has a guiding philosophy to lead it, one that can function with all kinds of different leaders. With any luck, Apple will be just fine.