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Steve Jobs met expectations by beating them

Think different? Flawed though he was, Jobs did that—and better.

(Photo: Photo: Elwood J. Blues/Wikimedia)

Outside Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., three flags (a U.S. flag, a California state flag and a company flag) are flying at half-staff.

Steve Paul Jobs, the consumer electronics king, is dead. He passed away, at 56, on Oct. 5, while millions of music lovers, computer users and movie addicts around the world used his company’s products. Long live Jobs’ legacy—which will now emerge from his shadow.

“It’s like the day Princess Diana died,” a distraught consumer told CBC. Steve Wozniak, who co-launched Apple with Jobs decades ago out of a California garage, told Bloomberg the news hit him like the shootings of John Lennon and John F. Kennedy. “Steve was among the greatest of American innovators,” U.S. President Barack Obama said, noting Jobs was “bold enough to believe he could change the world and talented enough to do it.”

Everyone from Joe and Jane Average to world leaders can’t believe the geek in the black turtleneck is gone. Jobs’ health issues were well known, but people of all stripes are still in shock because the guy was so unique—the kind of entrepreneur who justifies capitalism.

Apple’s heart and soul wasn’t perfect. In fact, Jobs’ commitment to philanthropy was recently questioned by Dealbook columnist Andrew Sorkin. “Despite accumulating an estimated $8.3 billion fortune,” he wrote on Aug. 29, “there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity. He is not a member of the Giving Pledge, the organization founded by Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates to persuade the nation’s wealthiest families to pledge to give away at least half their fortunes. (He declined to participate, according to people briefed on the matter.) Nor is there a hospital wing or an academic building with his name on it.”

That column outraged Jobs’ legion of fans. But anyone who ever met the man knows he had an ego almost as big as Apple’s market capitalization. Then again, who wouldn’t have an inflated head if they were as influential and brilliant as Steve Jobs.

As a business leader, of course, Jobs was different because he did indeed think different. He didn’t become rich by pushing buggy products that made the lives of his customers more complex or frustrating. He became a cult leader by enhancing the consumer experience. Indeed, as the Ottawa Citizen’s Andrew Potter (recently an editor at Canadian Business) points out in a column on Jobs’ success as a cultural visionary, “Apple products make their users feel freer than they do when they are using other operating systems, other computers, or other devices.”

Under Jobs’ rein, Apple didn’t just deliver good value. It consistently exceeded expectations. And now, thanks to the timing of his death, the cult that he built will have an easier time keeping its followers happy.

With all due respect to Jobs, Apple’s reputation took a bit of a hit when it failed to release the iPhone 5. “As soon as that iPhone 4S flashed on the screen in Cupertino, Apple stock dropped 2%,” notes Padgadget. “Twitter exploded with tweets from angry Apple fans, and message board entries displayed the dissatisfaction of receiving an iPhone 4S instead of an iPhone 5.”

Compared to iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S is a decent upgrade. But if you look at top-of-the-line Android phones, it isn’t revolutionary. And that’s probably a good thing. Imagine if Apple had not disappointed its fans and released an iPhone 5 that blew the competition away. The move would have been seen as Jobs’ last triumph, leaving the company in an even tougher position the first time it releases a post-Jobs product.

Now, come what may, Apple’s legendary co-founder can rest in peace knowing the company he built will stand on its own under new CEO Tim Cook when it is ready to try once again to meet expectations by beating them.